Corrections officers exonerated in jail death lawsuit

Becky Vargo • Oct 19, 2018 at 7:00 AM

Three Ottawa County corrections officers have been exonerated of liability in a 2013 suicide death at the county jail.

Jurors in U.S. District Court in Kalamazoo came to a unanimous verdict on Monday, following a 12-day trial, according to Douglas Van Essen, attorney for Ottawa County.

The trial was held after a lawsuit was filed in 2015 regarding the Aug. 9, 2013, suicide death of Spring Lake resident Scott Allen Meirs. The lawsuit was filed by Meirs’ widow, Vanessa Meirs.

“We are extremely pleased that jurors understood that there was no deprivation of Mr. Meirs’ constitutional rights,” Van Essen said. “The case was hard fought by a prominent civil rights firm from Detroit, Goodman & Hurwitz, and Ottawa County vigorously defended itself and its deputies.”

Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Kempker said: “Certainly any suicide in a jail is a tragedy that we try to prevent as well as we can. However, our deputies observed no suicidal behavior by Mr. Meirs directly and he made no cry for help. In fact, during his five days at the jail, he told one suicide screening officer and two nurses — one as late as the morning of the suicide — that he had no history of mental health treatment or medication and no thoughts of harming himself.”

An inmate warned one of the officers on the evening before the early morning suicide the next day that Meirs had been talking about cutting himself with a razor when he next received one, which was three days away. The officer immediately performed a welfare check, waking Meirs from his sleep and confirming that he was forward-thinking about his free time the next day and forward-acting by washing his socks and underwear for the next day.

The officers concluded that, because of the time of night, Meirs’ apparent desire to sleep and the indications that any threat was non-imminent, they could leave him in his cell until the mental health worker saw him in the morning.

Unfortunately, he changed his plans in the middle of the night and chose to end his life, officials said.  

Meirs, then 50, was arrested Aug. 4, 2013, and 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.

Vanessa Meirs’ 2015 lawsuit named the county, three correctional deputies and the jail’s nursing staff company as defendants, 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 as defendants. The deputies were represented by 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. Vanessa Meirs claims her husband’s requests for medication were disregarded and that the deputies had a responsibility to remove any sheets or other items that could be used to harm himself.

Vanessa Meirs, who has two children with Scott Meirs, was 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.

Holland Sentinel reporter Audra Gamble contributed to this story.

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