Washoe County Pays To Settle Deputy-Related Death Suits

Washoe County, Nevada
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Washoe County has agreed to settle lawsuits against the sheriff's office by paying more than $230,000 damages to families of two dead men - one who died at the county jail and another who was shot to death by a deputy.

The county agreed to pay $170,000 to the family of Stephen Gibson, who died in the Washoe County jail in 1996 when at least seven deputies tried to hold him down, thinking he was drunk, said Deputy District Attorney Greg Shannon.

Gibson actually was suffering from a manic-depressive episode for which he needed medication. He died of severe coronary artery disease, court records said.

In the second lawsuit, the county agreed to pay $50,000 to the parents of Ian Dunwoodie, who was shot by a sheriff's deputy as he fled from the Sparks Municipal Court in January, said Dave Grundy, a lawyer who handled the case for the county.

The county also agreed to pay another $5,000 to cover medical and funeral costs, he told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The total is separate from the $50,000 that Sparks officials have approved to settle their part of the lawsuit.

Washoe County Commissioners approved both settlements without discussion during Tuesday's meeting.

Jim Jeppson, risk manager with the county's finance department, said the settlements will be final once the agreements are signed by both parties.

Shannon said the negotiated settlements favor both sides and said the fact that the county settled does not mean it is guilty of any wrong-doing.

"This is not any kind of admission of liability," Shannon said. "It's a compromise of claims on both sides."

Jerry Mowbray, the lawyer for Michelle Gibson, Stephen Gibson's wife, said she was pleased with the results of the negotiations.

"They're glad the case is finally resolved," Mowbray said. "It has been very hard on her family."

Steve Dunwoodie, Ian's father, and his lawyer could not be reached for comment.

Ian Dunwoodie was in court in Sparks on Jan. 28 on a charge of disturbing the peace. He told a marshal at the court that he had two beers that morning because he was nervous, officials said. He was sent to a courtroom to see a judge but fled.

When he pulled away in his car, he trapped a court security officer underneath, police said. At that point, a sheriff's deputy shot the 21-year-old, killing him.

Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick said an investigation found that the deputy was justified in the shooting. But Steven and Jeanne Dunwoodie of Reno filed the civil suit in Washoe District Court in June against the county, sheriff's office, the city of Sparks, the court and other defendants.

The suit claimed officials were negligent for not stopping Dunwoodie from leaving the courthouse.

It also claimed officials violated their duties by using "unreasonably dangerous tactics' ' when they tried to stop him from driving away. This settlement ends the litigation, Shannon said.

In the other case, Gibson was 39 when deputies picked him up outside a convenience store in 1996, according to court records.

He fought with deputies as they tried to book him in the jail, so deputies used pepper spray and force to subdue him, records show. He died while being held down because the trauma was too much for his sick heart, a doctor later testified.

One of the deputies found prescription drug containers with Gibson's name on them in his car and gave them to the nurse on duty who said they were used to stabilize a mentally ill person, but no one diagnosed him as needing special treatment, court records said.

In addition, Michelle Gibson had called police and asked that they pick up her husband, who she knew needed medications. But the dispatches never reached the deputies on duty, records show.

After his death, Michelle Gibson sued the county in federal court but lost. She appealed and in 2002, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the lower court, saying the county had violated Gibson's constitutional right to receive medical care while in custody.

However, the appeals court affirmed the lower court's ruling that the deputies did not use excessive force and were just following the jails policy. Following that ruling, the two sides continued negotiations and agreed on this settlement, Shannon said.