The Board of Supervisors approved a $3.9 million payout Tuesday to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf of a teen injured in a fight at a county-run juvenile hall that left him permanently disabled.
Probation officials reported that the boy whose guardian filed the suit started the fight in a classroom at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall on July 23, 2013.
The teen "instigated a fight by rushing and striking another minor because the plaintiff believed that the minor may have learned about plaintiff's status as a sex offender," according to a summary provided to the board. "The minor defended himself by punching plaintiff twice to the head."
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Lawyers for the injured teen -- identified only as J.M.M. -- alleged that probation officers told the older boy that J.M.M. was in juvenile detention for a sexual offense with a minor, knowing that violence would result.
The 15-year-old who started the fight was immediately sent to a medical unit for evaluation and complained of an earache and headache, according to county staffers.
The boy was cleared and sent back to his room, where a supervisor later found him unconscious. He was taken to a hospital and underwent surgery, but suffered "severe neurological damage and paralysis."
His guardian filed suit in August 2014, alleging civil rights claims and negligence by county employees.
The complaint alleged that the hall was understaffed, with one of two officers on duty and no one in the classroom when the fight broke out.
Other threats had been made against their client and probation staffers failed to protect him, J.M.M.'s lawyers alleged. They accused one officer of hitting the teen in the chest, back and stomach two weeks before the classroom fight, singling him out because of the nature of his crime.
According to the lawsuit, the fight began at 1:53 p.m., a nurse saw the boy in his room 15 minutes later and he was sent to a medical unit and diagnosed with "head trauma" at 2:45 p.m.
By 3:10 p.m., he was back in his room, in quarters where all minors are subject to a 15-minute safety check.
"Plaintiff repeatedly called for help from his cell, he repeatedly complained of head pain, and he vomited in his cell," the complaint says. The probation officer on duty, who knew the teen had been in a fight, "cleaned up plaintiff's vomit, but did not seek medical attention."
After cleaning up, the officer "did a 'safety check' and ... saw that plaintiff was on the floor with his head and shoulders back against the bed and his eyes closed. (He) did nothing to ensure the plaintiff was `breathing,' 'alert' and 'conscious' because he believed the purpose of safety checks was simply to ensure 'a minor is in his room."'
Another probation employee found the youth unresponsive and foaming at the mouth about 6 p.m.
As a result of the injury, he is unable to talk or walk, has no control of his bodily functions and needs round-the-clock care. For some time, he was unable to breathe on his own, according to his lawyers.
The Department of Health Services concluded that their staff took appropriate action in letting the boy return to his room. They responded to the tragedy by adding training materials for probation employees on high alert symptoms for head injuries.
In its corrective action plan, the Probation Department said it would seek funding to install cameras in living quarters "to monitor youth and post- incident activity by staff."
A probation spokeswoman said there was no misconduct by any staff and the officers involved are still employed by the department.
"This is a health care settlement, not a punitive settlement," Kerri Webb said in an email to City News Service. "The monies being awarded to the victim will go towards paying for (his) long-term health and medical care."
Webb said the department has "greatly improved its staff training to increase awareness and monitoring of youth who have sustained head trauma. Staff are now more educated as to what the medical warning signs are and how to respond more effectively."
County lawyers offered the same boilerplate language found in virtually every county settlement summary: "Due to the risks and uncertainties of litigation, a reasonable settlement at this time will avoid further litigation costs."