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Judge approves settlement in Gregg County jail case

By Glenn Evans
Feb. 12, 2013 at 1:50 a.m.

MARSHALL - A federal judge gave his approval Monday to a $1.9 million settlement between Gregg County and the family of a woman who died in jail custody in 2010.

Amy Lynn Cowling's mother and three children claimed the 33-year-old died because of a jail policy that prevented her from taking prescriptions doctors ordered for her bipolar disorder and ongoing recovery from opiate addiction.

"It is a tragic situation, and we believe that the children were fairly compensated and that, hopefully, Gregg County will change their policies regarding medications and prescriptions," attorney Jimmy Negem, who represented Cowling's children, said after U.S. Judge Rodney Gilstrap approved the settlement that was reached days before a Jan. 22 trial date. "And the children got probably 80 percent of the recovery ... for a college education, for automobiles and to help them with a home later on."

Cowling's children, ages 14, 17 and 19, are awarded $1.15 million in the settlement. Her mother, Vicki Bankhead, was awarded $750,000 for Cowling's pain and suffering during her fatal jail stay, which Bankhead shares with the children.

Minus attorney fees and expenses, that split is $200,000 for the children to divide three ways and $207,000 for Bankhead. The children's larger award, which was specific to their wrongful death claim, nets out to $718,750.

Gilstrap also OK'd most of the children's award being placed in annuities that pay out over time - 95 percent of the award to the younger two children and 85 percent for the eldest with the remainder for college.

The court also will hold $25,000 for each of the younger children to buy cars, and $5,000 was set aside to pay for therapy for the two younger siblings, according to the order.

Gilstrap asked attorneys to have the final paperwork to him by the end of the week to sign.

Robert Davis, who represented Gregg County through its insurance carrier, agreed Cowling's death had been tragic. He said the out-of-court settlement, which includes no admission of wrongdoing, was preferable to a trial that was likely to be appealed by the losing party to the U.S. Fifth Court of Appeals in New Orleans and possibly on to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It's unfortunate when you have poly drug users when they come into jail," Davis said. "It's becoming very dangerous for counties to know how to treat these people."

Davis praised Sheriff Maxey Cerliano for conducting an investigation after Cowling's death on Dec. 28, 2010, four days after she was brought to the county lockup.

"You have an excellent, excellent sheriff in Gregg County," Davis said. "But, you had some staff members that didn't follow policy and since have been charged with a criminal act."

Two jailers, Tomeka Cross and Brian West, were charged with tampering with a government record after Cerliano found that logs that kept track of how often Cowling was observed had been falsified.

West, 32, of White Oak, remains under indictment on the state jail felony charge. No trial date is set.

Cross, 36, of Longview, was arrested and charged, but no indictment has been issued.

Four other jailers, including a corporal in charge, were fired. A fifth jailer resigned.

Cowling's cause of death, in a separation cell 111 hours after her Christmas Eve arrest, was ruled probable seizure due to methadone and Xanax withdrawals.

Since 2011, Cerliano has has added two nurse practitioner visits a week to the jail regimen, on Mondays and Fridays, to bracket the Wednesday stops by County Health Authority Dr. Lewis Browne. Cerliano also boosted the number of jail staffers who either are paramedics or licensed vocational nurses from eight to 10.



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