Metro-East News

St. Clair County ordered to pay $301,000 to family of jail inmate who committed suicide

The officer’s statement of “whatever, do what you want to do” to a suicidal inmate led to the inmate’s family winning a $301,000 lawsuit against St. Clair County. The inmate hanged himself in his cell and later died of his injuries.

The jury in the U.S. District Court for Southern Illinois found Correctional Officer Christopher Lanzante had failed to protect Bradley Scarpi, and was responsible for Scarpi’s wrongful death. Lanzante denies that Scarpi had said anything to indicate he was thinking of suicide, defense attorney Thomas Ysursa said.

Scarpi died from self-inflicted hanging injuries on May 23, 2014, while he was awaiting trial for home invasion charges.

Scarpi’s family filed the lawsuit on behalf of his two children and to expose the jail for its problems, Scarpi’s brother said.

Dwayne White, the named plaintiff, said if it weren’t for Lanzante his brother would still be alive.

“I wasn’t going to let my brother’s death be in vain,” he said, citing deaths, suicides and staph infections in St. Clair County Jail that should be avoided. He said the family turned down a settlement offer of $800,000 to keep the lawsuit public. The lawsuit was for $6 million.

“I think it sends a message out to St. Clair County that this isn’t going to be tolerated no more,” White said. “They’ve never been held accountable for nothing that goes on in that jail.”

Several inmates testified for his family’s case that Scarpi had expressed suicidal ideations, and that corrections officer Christopher Lanzante dismissed Scarpi.

The verdict includes $1,000 against Lanzante for punitive damages, which the officer is responsible for as an individual, Ysursa said.

“They awarded $1,000, that gives an indication for the level the jury viewed the egregiousness of the action,” Ysursa said.

The jury found for the defense in the one claim against the jail, that of unconstitutional policy or practice. Several other correctional officers had been named in the initial lawsuit but were dropped.

Lanzante has been a corrections officer since 2011 and has had “no other complaints,” Sheriff Rick Watson said.

“They believed three convicted felons, who testified from prison, or in shackles, over the officer,” Watson said.

“It was pretty disheartening.”

Lanzante has continued working at the jail during the lawsuit and will continue to do so, Watson said.

“This kid has never had any kind of disciplinary problems before; never had any issues,” Watson said of Lanzante.

Cindy Files, Scarpi’s older sister, said her brother had been in jail on charges from a woman who “changed her story three times.”

“Brad told me when he was arrested that if he had to spend time in prison he would kill himself,” she said. “And no, I didn’t call the jail or tell anyone (because) I thought he was safe and couldn’t do it.”

The jail violated the standard of care to provide inmates, said Sheila Bedi, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center and a clinical professor of law at Northwestern University.

“This is a significant verdict” because the plaintiffs believe it’s the first time the jail has been held accountable for its inmates’ health in this manner, Bedi said.

“It’s a strong message to correctional officers at St. Clair County Jail that they can’t go on disregarding the lives of people,” she said.

The sheriff referred to the plaintiffs’ attorneys as “that Northwestern group traveling the state suing everybody.”

The attorney for the defense, Ysursa, pointed out that the defense prevailed on the claim about unconstitutional policy or practice, and also got directed verdict for another count related to the Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. A directed verdict is when the judge decides that the plaintiff had failed to prove their case.

“The big thing with this case, it was a tragedy,” Watson said.