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Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 12:01 am

Judge fast-tracks lawsuit

Carlock trial, election could coincide

Carlock after his arrest. He died after 39 days in jail.
U.S. District Court Judge Sue Myerscough surprised both sides last week by setting a Feb. 4 trial date for a lawsuit filed by the widow of Amon Paul Carlock, who died nearly six years ago after falling ill in the Sangamon County jail.

The trial date is months earlier than either side expected. Lawyers for the plaintiffs and the defense had previously said they didn’t expect a trial until next summer at the earliest.

“I would expect that every person in the room was surprised,” said Jon Robinson, an attorney for the plaintiff. “There was no indication that that was coming.”

Myerscough set the case for trial less than a week after a settlement conference bore no fruit. Like the trial date, Myerscough’s order for an Oct. 11 settlement conference hadn’t been expected by either side. The conference, overseen by U.S. District Court Judge Harold A. Baker, lasted less than two hours.

“Obviously, we are fairly far apart,” Robinson said.

Robinson and Andrew Ramage, an attorney for the county, said that they expect the trial could last as long as six weeks, which could put the proceedings square in the middle of the Republican primary for sheriff, with the performance of sheriff’s employees in the jail up for public scrutiny.

Election day is March 18, and there is plenty of potential campaign fodder in the lawsuit, given how much the county has paid in litigation costs. The legal tab has already topped $2.3 million, the most that the county has ever paid to defend a lawsuit, according to county officials.

“This is probably one of the biggest civil trials, certainly in recent years, that will be held in this area that I’m aware of,” Ramage said.

The trial could be delayed if the county appeals an Oct. 3 ruling from Myerscough, who decided that some defendants were not immune from being sued by virtue of working for the government. Ramage said he doesn’t know whether the trial could be postponed. Scheduling, he said, could prove an issue.

“I haven’t spoken to the other attorneys to see if they have other conflicts,” Ramage said.

No fewer than 14 attorneys, most of them paid by the county, have entered appearances in the case that began more than five years ago. Two physicians who worked under contract at the jail have their own county-paid lawyers, as does at least one guard. Under terms of contracts with the doctors, the county must pay to defend them, but the physicians or their insurers must pay damages if a jury finds against the doctors.

The county would pay damages if a jury faults county employees. The county would also have to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees if a jury finds against the county, regardless of the amount of damages awarded.

In short, an already expensive case could end up costing a lot more. Robinson said he hasn’t given up hope of a settlement. Considering the cost of a trial that could last a month or more, he said that the county should seriously consider settling the case, which would be expensive for taxpayers even if the county prevails.

“If they lose, it’s an entirely different matter,” Robinson said. “They’re really making a mistake.”

The plaintiffs blame physicians working under contract and county employees for the death of Carlock, an accused child molester who had a history of diabetes and depression when was booked into the jail. He lost about 30 pounds during a 39-day stay in the jail. He died after a struggle with jailers who were trying to take him to a hospital because he was behaving erratically and testing showed dangerous levels of impurities in his blood that the plaintiffs say caused Carlock, 57, to experience mental problems that prompted jailers to use force.

County officials, who deny wrongdoing, have said that they will defend such cases despite the cost because settling could encourage more lawsuits.

“I don’t want to comment on the evidence,” Ramage said. “We’re confident in our position and expect to win.”

Wes Barr, who is running against undersheriff Jack Campbell in the Republican primary, said he’s not certain what effect such a high-stakes trial might have on the campaign.

“I don’t know if there’d be any effect at all,” said Barr, who retired as a sheriff’s lieutenant earlier this year. “We don’t even know all the facts right now. … It’s a big case. I don’t want to make any statements when I don’t know the facts.”

Campbell also said he doesn’t know how the Carlock case might influence the campaign or the election.

“I guess that remains to be seen,” Campbell said.

Campbell had no role in running the jail when Carlock died, but he is running as a protégé of sheriff Neil Williamson and defends jailers.

“I don’t believe our employees have done anything wrong,” Campbell said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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