Reginald Jerome Taylor was 21 and prisoner of the state of Virginia when he died of complications resulting from a tooth extraction performed at the state penitentiary in 1974.
Today, in the centuries-old tradition of citizens coming to the seat of government to petition their lawmakers. Taylor's family asked the Virginia legislature to give them $15,000 for what they said was the "gross negligence" of the State Department of Corrections in causing Taylor's death.
The House of Delegates Claims Committee heard testimony on Taylor's case for half an hour and then discussed how much money the Taylor family should receive. The treatment of Taylor's toothache "smacked of barbarism," said Del. Floyd C. Bagley (D-Prince William), who added, "I just hope that they never lock me up."
Other committee members noted that Taylor had no dependents and that the brain damage caused by the tooth infection would have rendered him incapable of earning a living, so there was no income which his family was being deprived of. Moreover, they said the infection could have occurred whether he was under the care of the state or not.
The committee recommended to the full House that the Taylors be given $3,000, the amount considered necessary to cover his funeral expenses.
Taylor's case is only one of many, some of them tragic, some ludicrous, that come before the House Claims Committee each year. Because of the time-honored doctrine of sovereign immunity, under which the Commonwealth of Virginia generally cannot be sued, the committee and its counterpart in the Senate must act as judge and jury on the calims of private citizens who feel the agents of Virginia have brought pain, suffering or financial loss to their lives.
Simply put, sovereign immunity is a common law doctrine that came to this country with the Mayflower. The doctrine makes it impossible for the state, or anyone acting officially in its behalf, to be sued in court by a private citizen. Since the state's agents are no less prone to acts of negligence, or in some cases sheer stupidity, than the rest of the population, it is up to the claims committee to see that justice is done.
The panels make recommendations on how much the petitioners should receive. The House and Senate then vote on the suggested amounts, just like they would any other legislation.
Committee members make their decisions on how much - if anything - to award victims of the state's alleged negligence on an ad hos basis, depending on the circumstances of each case and the report of the subcommittee that investigated it.
While the committee decided not to recommend giving the Taylors the amount they sought, it found other cases more compelling and raised the amount from what the petitioners requested. One such case was that of Joseph John Wimbrow.
Wimbrow, a 59-year-old World War II veteran was staying with his sister in Portsmouth, Va., on an outpatient furlough from a veterans hospital where he was being treated for mental illness. In August, 1963, he was arrested for indecent exposure, a misdemeanor. Because of Wimbrow's history of mental illness, the doctor at the Portsmouth city jail recommended he be studied "in some institution for proper avaluation.
An error in the administrative order drawn up on the doctor's suggestion, however, reported Wimbrow's charge as a felony and he was committed to the maximum security ward for the criminally insane at Southwestern State Hospital in Marion, Va.
A misdemeanor charge normally would have placed Wimbrow in a veterans hospital for observation. Instead, he stayed at Southwestern for seven years and was charged $8,397 for his room and board and the amount was deducted from his railroad retirement benefits.
Through the efforts of an attorney, Wimbrow finally was dicharged from the hospital in December, 1970.
The committee, clearly stunned today by Wimbrow's experiences, recommended that he be awarded $20,000. "We realize that wrongs like this that are afflicted on an individual can never be compensated," said Del. Clinton Miller (R-Shenandoah). "You do what you can."
Normally, people aggrieved by the state are paid out of the state government's general fund. But the committee today ordered the State Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board to explain why it should not have to pay a claim fo $143,645.62 out of its own budget.
Greenbrier Farms Inc., claimed that amount, because a state mental health worker allegedly plowed over the nursery's trees and shrubs a piece of land in Chesapeake, Va. that the state had bought.
The state had said the nursery could keep the trees and shrubs.