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Judge revokes $1.35M damage award in death of teen who had been held at Hill County jail

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GREAT FALLS, Montana — A state judge found that the Montana Human Rights Commission made many errors in awarding $1.35 million in damages to the estate of a Hays-Lodgepole teenager who died of untreated alcohol withdrawal, and he overturned the award and reinstated an earlier finding that the teen was not discriminated against based on his race or disability.

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock issued the ruling on March 11, the Great Falls Tribune (http://gftrib.com/1eOdvrq ) reported Tuesday.

A.J. Longsoldier's estate filed a complaint against Hill and Blaine counties, alleging he died in November 2009 because workers at the Hill County jail — where he was being held on a Blaine County charge — failed to get him adequate medical care. He was unable to eat, drink or sleep, was nauseous and having visual and auditory hallucinations because of alcohol withdrawal, records show.

The complaint alleged that although Longsoldier was taken to the hospital, deputies did not fill two prescriptions and his symptoms went untreated, in part because a nurse at the hospital speculated that he was "playing them."

Hearings officer Terry Spear ruled in April 2012 that neither county discriminated against Longsoldier because he was a Native American or because he was dependent on alcohol. His estate appealed.

The Human Rights Commission overturned Spear in July 2012 and sent the case back to him to determine damages. But the commissioners did not make a written or audio recording of the meeting, Sherlock's ruling said.

In March 2013, Spear awarded $300,000 in damages. Four months later, commissioners met again and announced in August 2013 that the damages should have been $1.35 million. However, the record-keeping of that meeting does not provide a clear indication of commissioners' intentions on the damages, Sherlock found.

Both counties sought an order reversing what they believed were unlawful rulings by the commission and the reinstatement of Spears' April 2012 finding that Longsoldier was not discriminated against.

An amended petition sought to add an allegation that the commission broke Montana's Open Meeting Law by violating quorum and notice requirements. It also was "strangely" amended to reinstate Spear's March 2013 decision that Longsoldier's estate should receive $300,000, Sherlock said.

"The court finds that the best way to back the court and the parties out of the rabbit hole into which we have all entered is to grant the commission's motion and dismiss the commission from this case," Sherlock wrote. He reinstated Spear's original ruling.

However, attorneys for the estate filed a complaint on Feb. 24 alleging that the meeting at which the commission decided the court should vacate all the decisions it made in the Longsoldier case violated the state's open meeting laws, so any decisions made based on that statement should be thrown out.

Longsoldier's estate can appeal Sherlock's decision to the Montana Supreme Court. Attorney Patrick Flaherty declined to comment because the case remains open.


Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com

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