The Fayette Citizen-News Page

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Jailers failed to help inmate, wrongful death suit alleges


The parents of an inmate who died after a scuffle at the Fayette County Jail in August have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the county, Sheriff Randall Johnson and the officers who took part in subduing the inmate.

The federal lawsuit filed by James Edward Eppinger's parents claims he was not subdued properly and the actions of a deputy responding to the scuffle led to his death in August. Dep. David Martin put Eppinger, 30, in a choke hold and the autopsy revealed his larynx was fractured in two places, according to the complaint filed by James Powell Eppinger and Virginia Eppinger.

The lawsuit also says the coroner's report ruled the death a homicide. A Fayette County Grand Jury was presented evidence in the case several months ago, but it declined to issue any criminal indictments. The case was presented by Columbus District Attorney Grey Conger who was appointed to the case after Fayette District Attorney Bill McBroom recused himself because his office works closely with the Sheriff's Department on numerous cases.

County Attorney Bill McNally had no comment on the matter Tuesday morning, as he was just beginning to address the situation. The county will likely file an answer to the suit within the next several weeks.

Eppinger began serving a 14-day sentence for operating a motor vehicle without a driver's license several days before the incident occurred, according to the suit.

The detention officers who were present failed to act when Martin used "deadly force" on the inmate, the lawsuit claims. Also, the parents claim the Sheriff's Department failed to properly train jail staff and road deputies to apprehend combative subjects and seek attention for prisoners with special medical problems, the suit alleges.

Eppinger was suffering from delusions the day he died when jail personnel tried to calm his fears by moving him into a cell by himself. He resisted entering the cell and one of the jailers named in the suit, David Graham, grabbed him by the arm and brought him to the ground, the suit claims.

Another jailer showed up to help subdue Eppinger, and Martin, a road deputy, also was called to assist, the suit states.

Three of the jailers named in the suit, Shawn Graham, Brenda Houston and Ronald Wyatt, were physically present at the scene; another jailer named in the suit, Clint Hughey, witnessed the incident on closed circuit TV, the suit claims.

Jail staff should have sought medical attention for Eppinger because, at the time of the scuffle, he had claimed that green and purple squirrels "were out to get him," the suit states. Jail personnel were aware that he was taking medication to combat seizures and anxiety attacks he would experience, according to the suit.

The suit also claims that the defendants "made no reasonable efforts to resuscitate Eppinger before EMTs arrived" and they lied to EMTs about how he was injured, saying "he collapsed after a brief struggle and they helped him to the ground."

The Eppingers are seeking a jury trial, hoping for a monetary reward for aggravated, exemplary and punitive damages.

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