Settlement over prison-inmate suicide on Luzerne County Council agenda

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -
The Luzerne County Correctional Facility in Wilkes-Barre -

Another litigation settlement is up for Luzerne County Council approval or rejection next week.

At least five settlements have been authorized by council this year to date, including a $35,000 payment last month to former Emergency Management Agency worker Loretta Presto to close out litigation alleging unfair treatment due to her disabilities.

The suit at issue in Tuesday’s council meeting was filed in July 2013 by the estate of 20-year-old Gary Allen Jones, a West Wyoming resident who was found hanging from his neck in a cell at the county prison in December 2012 while he was incarcerated on a parole violation, according to county records.

Jones died of asphyxiation as a result of hanging, with the manner of death ruled a suicide by the county coroner’s office.

The suit alleges wrongful death and seeks damages exceeding $100,000 for pain and suffering between the time of his injuries and death and to cover lost earnings and enjoyment of life.

The agenda does not specify the proposed settlement amount. The county administration stopped releasing settlement monetary details prior to council voting sessions this year, arguing advanced public discussion could compromise litigation that must proceed if settlements are rejected.

West Pittston resident Catherine Marie Jones Miller, Jones’ mother, filed the suit through attorney Amil Minora, of Scranton, against the county, county council, prior county manager Robert Lawton, the Luzerne County Correctional Facility, county corrections officers and the county prison board. The prison board was eliminated under the county home rule charter that took effect in January 2012.

In addition to Miller, the suit also lists other family members of Jones who are legally entitled to recover damages — siblings Carl and Felicia Deininger and father Dale Wallace.

Jones previously had pleaded guilty and was originally sentenced in July 2011 to six to 23 months in prison on charges he took items from a West Pittston home. Court papers indicate he violated the terms of his parole and was lodged at the prison in December 2012.

The suit alleges the defendants failed to properly screen and evaluate Jones’ mental and emotional condition, classify him as a high-risk inmate and provide adequate treatment services and supervision. It also maintains the prison did not establish sufficient rules and procedures and training of corrections officers to ensure Jones’ safety.

Jones’ death was a “direct and proximate result” of the defendants’ negligence, the suit states.

The county’s December 2014 response denied the allegations and sought dismissal of the complaint and payment of the county’s legal fees and costs.

The defendants are immune from liability regarding the allegations stated in the suit, said the response filed by attorney Sean P. McDonough, of Moosic.

There is no “affirmative causal link” between any actions of defendants and alleged injuries, the response said.

“Any of the occurrences set forth in the complaint, the happening of which is specifically denied by answering defendants, was caused by plaintiff’s own misconduct, namely plaintiff’s decedent taking his own life,” the county filing argued.

No other arguments or responses have been filed to the docket in county court, a review of records shows.

Council members recently were briefed on the rationale for settling in a closed-door executive session, the council agenda said. It noted the settlement is recommended by the county’s outside counsel and county law and manager’s offices.

In line with past agenda submissions advocating settlement, the administration warned the county may incur tens of thousands of dollars in additional legal fees if the matter proceeds to discovery, a jury trial and possibly a lengthy appeals process.

The county has budgeted $600,000 this year for outside legal counsel, settlements and other expenses associated with litigation against the county that are not covered by insurance.

An allocation of $750,000 was requested for 2018 because more than 25 active suits in various stages are currently outstanding, including employment claims filed by former workers and matters involving Children and Youth and the prison, some dating back several years, records show.

The Luzerne County Correctional Facility in Wilkes-Barre Luzerne County Correctional Facility in Wilkes-Barre

By Jennifer Learn-Andes


Luzerne County Council will hold a public hearing, voting meeting and work session starting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the county courthouse on River Street in Wilkes-Barre.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.