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Friday, February 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Alaska City Settles Inmate Suicide Case

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (CN) - A nearly $900,000 settlement has been reached in a wrongful death suit after the Alaska Supreme Court vacated the original $1.04 million award in the death of a 21-year-old man who committed suicide in jail.

Judy Bunyan, the victim's mother, sued the city of Hooper Bay - a mostly Native village in western Alaska - for wrongful death about a year after her "highly intoxicated" son hanged himself with the drawstring of his sweatpants in June 2011.

Bunyan acknowledged that her son was drunk and told police he was a suicide risk, according to trial records.

She also said that Hooper Bay police documented prior suicide threats, but the officer who ran a records check failed to find that information.

Still, the officer who checked the young man's pockets and clothing failed to remove the drawstring from his pants or notice scars on his forearms that were indicative of prior self-harm, according to the original complaint.

One of the more egregious acts leading to the man's death that came out in the jury trial was that the two jailers on duty failed to check on him every five minutes - as required for drunk detainees - because one was "browsing Facebook and the other playing online poker"

A jury found that Louis Bunyan's suicide attempt and death were "reasonably foreseeable" and awarded over $1 million in damages. Soon after, attorneys for Hooper Bay filed an appeal.

Ruling on that appeal, the Alaska Supreme Court concurred on the issue of reasonable foreseeability and upheld the verdict. But the high court had issues with the amount and fault of liability for Louis Bunyan's death, vacated the judgment and remanded for a division of responsibility between the city and the deceased.

"Louis' level of incapacity due to alcohol had not been properly determined and would likely affect damages to the mother," Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe wrote in the opinion. The high court said the jury should have been able to divide the fault between the city and Bunyan.

Had the parties not been able to settle on an award, a new jury trial would have been scheduled.

The settlement was entered on Jan. 14. The amount agreed upon, just under $900,000, represents a 20 percent reduction from the original award to account for the error in not directing the jury to look at liability and apportionment of fault between both Bunyan and the police.

Attorneys for both sides did not immediately return emails for comment. Yukon-Kuskokwim lawyers Jim Valcarce and David Henderson, who worked with the Bunyan family on the case, told the Alaska Dispatch News that they were pleased with the outcome.

They also said on behalf of the family that they hope it makes a difference overall.

"We're pleased it's resolved," Henderson told the newspaper. "With all the problems in Alaska's jails, people needlessly dying, we hope that changes will take place."

There have been several inmate deaths in Alaska in recent years. The state also has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, with many occuring in rural Alaskan villages like Hooper Bay.

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