COLUMBIA, SC — Richland County will pay $750,000 to settle a lawsuit for the brutal beating of a homeless mentally ill inmate at the county jail.
The beating left Robert Sweeper III with a punctured lung, broken ribs and broken vertebrae after the February 2012 incident at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center. Guards left him in his cell near death for five days before medics were summoned to take him to a hospital emergency room. One guard was sentenced to prison and six others were fired.
The settlement is more than twice the amount of a state-mandated cap of $300,000 that a county could pay out if it were to lose a jury trial. But Richland County officials decided to pay the higher amount, a council member said, because they feared the lawsuit could be moved to federal court, where a jury might render a verdict many times that amount.
“If this were moved to federal court, we could be exposing Richland County to a multimillion-dollar jury award,” said Councilman Seth Rose, chairman of a council committee that is studying how to improve conditions at the jail for inmates and correctional officers.
“We also had to take into account we would also be spending a large amount of money in attorneys’ fees defending what is basically an indefensible act by some employees,” Rose said.
The county is self-insured, so it would have had to pay any federal jury verdict out of tax dollars. As it is, the $750,000 payout to Sweeper will come out of the county’s general fund. County Council recently voted to pay the money.
Sweeper is now at a facility in Charleston, where he is recovering from physical and mental issues related to the beating, said his attorney, Dick Harpootlian.
Sweeper’s lawsuit was qualified to be moved to federal court because it involved violations of Sweeper’s civil rights under federal law, Rose and Harpootlian said.
The settlement between Sweeper and the county included a promise that Sweeper would not bring any more legal actions against the county and specifically not any legal actions in federal court, according to the settlement document.
The facts in Sweeper’s beating look terrible, Rose said.
“The employee who was convicted in his case, and the employees who were discharged, really did some egregious things,” he said. “We did not want to run and hide from our employees’ conduct and not take responsibility for what happened.”
Sweeper was in jail on a trespassing charge. University of South Carolina campus police had arrested him when they found him sleeping in a classroom building doorway on a cold night and took him to jail.
The beating happened in the early morning hours of Feb. 11, when then-corrections officer Robin Smith and other detention center guards were conducting a shakedown of cells that housed mentally ill inmates and those on suicide watch. The shakedown’s purpose was to find weapons or tools inmates could use to hurt themselves.
When Sweeper didn’t respond to what Smith was saying, Smith began to beat him, according to evidence at his sentencing. Smith repeatedly kicked Sweeper about the upper body, according to the evidence.
At the time, Smith was violating detention center policy – he should not have entered Sweeper’s cell alone but should have gone in with a team of guards, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Drake. “Smith lost his temper, and when you are a correctional officer you can’t do that, and the system will not tolerate it,” she said.
In April, Smith pleaded guilty to a criminal civil rights violation and was sentenced to two years in prison. Six other guards were fired for not reporting the beating.
The county’s $750,000 payment will go to Sweeper’s mother, who is acting as his legal guardian. Harpootlian and his co-counsel, Frank McCann of Charleston, will collect a 40 percent fee, according to the settlement document.
Another civil lawsuit filed by Sweeper against Correct Care Solutions in federal court is still active. Correct Care is the private medical company hired by Richland County to oversee medical treatment for inmates at the jail.
In that lawsuit, Sweeper alleges his civil rights were violated by Correct Care’s medical personnel who for five days after his beating ignored his serious injuries and mental conditions to save money and “increase profits and reduce overhead expenses” for the company.
In an answer, the company denies the allegations, blames county jail personnel for Sweeper’s injuries and seeks to have the lawsuit transferred to state court.