BECKLEY, WV (WVNS) — Within two weeks of being accused by a federal judge of intentionally destroying emails and other data, former West Virginia corrections officials have agreed to pay $4 million in a class action lawsuit.
Attorneys for both sides agreed to the terms during a status conference in Beckley on Thursday, November 9, 2023.
The proposed settlement was submitted to U.S. District Judge Frank Volk, who will now decide whether to approve it.
Volk ordered all pleas must be filed by December 8, 2023.
The agreement does not address other plaintiffs in the suit, which include a number of county commissions, along with Wexford Medical and Prime Care Medical.
When Judge Volk asked plaintiffs’ attorney Stephen P. New in court if he intended to collect damages from the remaining defendants, New replied, “Absolutely, your honor. We look forward to it.”
The lawsuit was brought last year on behalf of Michael Rose and Edward Harman, two inmates at Southern Regional Jail in Beaver.
The $4 million amount is the highest the state’s Board of Risk and Insurance Management (BRIM) insurance will pay, according to New.
New said BRIM pays one million dollars per class period, which runs from July 1 to July 1. The proposed settlement is for four class periods, starting in 2020.
“Our team, on behalf of the current and former inmates of Southern regional Jail, have extracted from the state actors all that could be extracted from them,” New said.
During the status conference on Thursday, the suit was amended to include 9,200 SRJ inmates.
Based on statements made in client, 35 percent of the $4 million will be used for legal fees, and the plaintiffs will split the remainder.
The suit alleges Southern Regional Jail and state corrections officials violated the Constitutional rights of inmates.
Inmates have alleged corrections officials violated their rights by failing to provide protection against physical and sexual assaults, denying adequate medical care, forcing them into overcrowded cells and by foregoing maintenance, which resulted in some inmates being forced to drink water from a toilet.
New said part of his legal team’s mission was to find facts regarding conditions at SRJ.
“We’ve uncovered a lot of truth, and that was one of our goals in this litigation, to get to the truth of what was really going on out there, and I feel like we have done that,” he added.
Robert Dunlap, another attorney who represents inmates in the lawsuit, agreed.
“It sends a very strong message about the fact that these individuals need to be treated with humanity and dignity,” added Dunlap.
Former West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation interim commissioner Brad Douglas, former DCR commissioner Betsy Jividen, former Homeland Security Department secretary Jeff Sandy, former SRJ superintendent Michael Francis and interim DCR Commissioner William Marshall are named as defendants.
Douglas, who offered extensive testimony during lawsuit depositions, regarding maintenance needs at state prisons and jails, was fired last week.
The parties had initially agreed to classify the suit as a limited fund class action settlement, which offered no option for claimants to opt out of the lawsuit.
In an order entered last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge Omar J. Aboulhosn found in favor of the defendants, who asked for default judgment against state officials.
In the 39-page order, Judge Aboulhosn accused state officials of destroying evidence which defense attorneys had asked to be preserved, including emails, texts and video.
Gov. Jim Justice and State Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mark Scorsaia each said last week that evidence was not intentionally destroyed but was caused by miscommunication between state officials.
Scorsaia issued a statement to media on Thursday, saying, “With my over 30 years of prosecutorial experience, I am confident that we have made the right decision in this matter. This settlement was the best course of action to protect our state’s interests and limit potential financial liabilities.”
Scorsaia also said in the statement that the lawsuit was caused by the actions of WVDCR officials, who have since been fired. He said Gov. Jim Justice had called for transparency from WVDCR officials and that he and the governor would continue to be transparent during the course of the lawsuit.