The family of an asthmatic defendant who died four years ago after repeatedly pleading for medical help while in custody at D.C. Superior Court has agreed to settle claims relating to his death for more than $940,000.
A contractor that formerly provided nursing services for Superior Court and one of the firm's nurses will pay roughly $800,000 to the family of Robert L. Waters Jr., according to sources familiar with the settlement. The U.S. Marshals Service, which held Waters in a court lockup the day he died, will pay $73,000, and the city will pay $70,000, government officials confirmed.
The negligence case was scheduled for trial last week in U.S. District Court, and the settlement was reached days beforehand. As part of the agreement, none of the parties admitted wrongdoing.
Waters, 54, was an unemployed homeless man who collapsed in the well of Judge Tim Murphy's courtroom on April 20, 2001, while awaiting a hearing on charges of drinking alcohol in public from an open container. His attorneys said he had complained of breathing problems before, during and after the court proceeding. He was examined by a nurse in the courtroom and then taken to a courthouse cell, where he was found unconscious an hour and 45 minutes later.
An autopsy found that Waters died of an acute bronchial asthmatic attack.
Waters's father, Robert L. Waters Sr., sued the court's nursing contractor, Arora Group of Gaithersburg; Arora nurse Thomas Reshke; the D.C. government; and the Marshals Service on claims that all failed in their duty to respond to his son as he warned that he was dying. All denied wrongdoing.
The lawsuit accused D.C. police of taking away Waters's Prednisone medication April 19, 2001, the day of his arrest. It faulted the marshals and nurses for failing to get him the appropriate treatment once he arrived at D.C. Superior Court and not properly checking up on him in the cellblock.
"Robert Waters did not get the respect he deserved as a human being or as a person with a serious medical condition that he was well aware of how to handle," said Daniel E. Schultz, the family's attorney. "What happened to him would never have happened had he been wearing a suit and a tie, or if he had given a fancy address where he lived instead of saying he lived at a shelter."
Schultz declined to confirm the amount of the settlement, saying only that it was "significant and reflected the seriousness of what had occurred and the anguish that Robert Waters had to have gone through the last two hours of his life."
Robert Waters Sr., of Clinton, declined to comment on the agreement.
D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti said he regretted what happened to Waters.
"I am . . . pleased that this case has been resolved with the District paying less than 10 percent of the total settlement," Spagnoletti said. "But regardless of the amount that the District may be paying to the settlement, what happened to Mr. Waters was tragic. And although a price can never be placed on a life, I agree with the overall settlement."
Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, which represented the Marshals Service, called the settlement "an equitable resolution of this unfortunate and tragic incident."
Jan Simonsen, attorney for Arora, and Michael Flynn, who represented Reshke, the nurse, declined to comment on the settlement and their clients' views of the case. Both said the terms involving non-government parties in the case were confidential.
In court papers, Arora and Reshke had denied showing any reckless disregard for Waters. Reshke's attorney wrote that Waters had been abusively yelling at the nurse both times he examined him, and stated that Reshke determined it would be unlikely for a person in respiratory distress to be able to yell. The Marshals Service said in court papers that it relied on the contract nurses' conclusions.
Arora no longer provides medical care for the court. Since 2002, the D.C. Department of Health has been in charge of medical issues at the courthouse at 500 Indiana Ave. NW.
The D.C. police department has changed its policy of confiscating prescription medicine from defendants. Since 2003, prescriptions and medical instructions are supposed to travel with defendants as they are arrested and moved to court.
Waters's sister, Monica Thomas, said she was sorry that the final hours of her brother's life were not aired in a public courtroom.
"If it had gone to trial, it would have shown the horrific way that Robert died," she said.