New York City settles inmate death lawsuits for $5.3 million

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 17, 2015 10:41 AM

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City has agreed to pay $5.3 million to the families of two inmates who died at its troubled Rikers Island jail complex, a city official said on Tuesday.

Family members of Jason Echevarria have agreed to settle for $3.8 million. Their lawsuit filed in 2013 contended that guards ignored pleas by the 25-year-old robbery suspect for medical help after he ingested a "soap ball," a toxic disinfectant detergent used to clean cells.

"The parties have reached a settlement in principle which hopefully brings this tragic matter to a close for the family," Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city's law department, said in a statement.

Paolucci said the city had also reached a $1.5 million settlement with the family of Carlos Mercado, but provided no further details.

Surveillance video published by the New York Times in September showed Mercado, who died of complications of diabetes within hours of arriving at the jail in June 2013, carrying his vomit in a bag before he collapsed and was ignored for three minutes by jail staff.

The settlements were announced five months after a federal judge in Manhattan sentenced Terrence Pendergrass, a former supervising guard at Rikers, to five years in prison for deliberately ignoring Echevarria's medical needs.

Dozens of guards have in recent years faced criminal charges for an array of offenses, including assaulting inmates and smuggling contraband, amid continued scrutiny of safety and security issues at Rikers Island.

Holding around 10,000 prisoners daily, Rikers Island is one of the largest U.S. jail complexes.

Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration has made it a priority to reform the city's jails. A federal judge in October approved a settlement between the city, the U.S. Justice Department and a group of inmates that calls for systemic reforms at Rikers.

Robert Kelner, a lawyer for Echevarria's family, said in a phone interview that the sheer size of the settlement must force the city and its Department of Correction to re-examine Rikers Island and how inmates are protected.

"Both the family and we as attorneys want to be sure nothing like this ever happens again," he said.

Representatives for Mercado's family could not be immediately reached.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)