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Ottawa County in court for 2013 inmate suicide

By Audra Gamble/The Holland Sentinel • Oct 10, 2018 at 1:00 PM

Five years after an inmate committed suicide in the Ottawa County Jail, the county is back in court fighting a lawsuit filed by the Spring Lake man’s wife.

A jury trial in the civil case began Sept. 25.

Scott Meirs, then 50, was arrested Aug. 4, 2013, and was charged with second-degree home invasion after his neighbor called police and said Meirs had entered her home and stolen prescription drugs.

Meirs hung himself with his bedding in his jail cell on Aug. 9, 2013. He died four days later at an area hospital.

Meirs’ wife, Vanessa Meirs, filed the lawsuit in 2015 against the county, three correctional deputies and the jail’s nursing staff company, claiming the county failed to protect her husband from himself.

Since then, the county and the nursing company have been removed from the lawsuit, leaving deputies Linda Cashman, Gene Murin and Joseph Dirette. The deputies are being represented by county attorney Doug Van Essen.

Vanessa Meirs claims her husband had a history of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal ideation and a history of drug addiction. At the time of his arrest, he was on two medications to manage his opioid addiction, which she claims both had depression as side effects.

In the county’s response to the initial 2015 legal complaint, Van Essen stated Scott Meirs “denied any history of mental health illness or treatment and any suicidal ideation” during his medical screening at the jail Aug. 5, 2013.

Vanessa Meirs’ attorney claims Scott should have been constantly observed by jail staff, but was not. Deputies walked by his cell about once an hour, but the attorney claims videotape shows the last walk-by was at 10:51 p.m., several hours before Scott Meirs suffocated himself. Ottawa County denies this claim.

Now, a former Ottawa County inmate who was in the jail will appear in federal court in Kalamazoo to testify in this case today. The inmate, Robert Dalman, is serving a 17-year prison sentence with the Michigan Department of Corrections for criminal sexual conduct, but was in the Ottawa County Jail when Meirs suffocated himself.

On Aug. 7, 2013, a corrections deputy was told by another inmate at the jail that Meirs had threatened suicide “the next time he had access to a razor,” but the deputy did not believe Meirs was in immediate danger, as he intended to go to sleep. The next day, Meirs threatened suicide again and was placed in his cell for violating jail rules during the general jail population’s “free time.”

Meirs committed suicide at 1:44 a.m. Aug. 9, 2013. Vanessa Meirs claims her husband’s requests for medication were disregarded and that deputies had a responsibility to remove any sheets or other items that could be used by Meirs to harm himself.

Vanessa Meirs, who has two children with Scott Meirs, is suing for loss of love, society and companionship; emotional distress; loss of earnings; hospital, funeral and burial expenses; and other damages under the Michigan Wrongful Death Act.

It’s unclear how much longer the jury trial will go on or when a verdict will be reached.

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