Sandra Bland's Family Settles Wrongful Death Lawsuit
Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
The family of Sandra Bland — who died last year in a Waller County Jail cell — has reached a settlement with Texas officials in a wrongful death lawsuit, a lawyer for the family said Thursday.
Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family a total of $1.9 million and the county has agreed to policy changes, according to attorney Cannon Lambert. The terms were finalized Wednesday, Lambert said.
The fight began on July 10, 2015, when former Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia stopped Bland near the Prairie View A&M University campus for failing to properly signal a lane change. After a heated argument, the trooper arrested Bland for assaulting a public servant. Three days later, she was found hanged in her cell at Waller County Jail. Her death was ruled a suicide.
The circumstances of Bland's arrest, which was caught on dashboard camera video, spurred a national discussion about race and policing.
When Bland was screened after entering the Waller County Jail, she reported having had suicidal thoughts in the past, but said she was not feeling suicidal at the time of intake. Since then, lawmakers have scrutinized the screening process for new inmates and challenged jails, with new screening questions, to route inmates with mental health issues toward treatment.
The FBI and Texas Rangers investigated, Bland's mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit, legislative hearings were held and the screening process for new inmates in Texas county jails was changed.
In federal court, Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, was suing Encinia, Waller County and several of its employees. The judge in the case ordered mediation in July.
Terms of the settlement:
- Waller County will pay the family $1.8 million. The Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family $100,000.
- "To prevent future document falsifications, Waller County jail will use automated electronic sensors to ensure accurate and timely cell checks."
- "From here forward, Waller County jail will now provide an on-duty nurse or EMT for all shifts."
- "The Waller County Judge pledges to actively seek passage of state legislation providing for more funding for jail intake, booking, screening training and other jail support like telemedicine access for Texas county jails AND HE SUPPORTS HAVING ANY RESULTING LEGISLATION NAMED IN SANDRA BLAND'S HONOR!"
- "The Waller County Sheriff's Office shall provide additional jailer training (including ongoing continuing education) on booking and intake screening."
"The case is settled in its entirety," Lambert said, but "this is the beginning, not the end."
Lambert said Bland's mother is pleased with the settlement "particularly because of the non-economic components."
Waller County attorney Larry Simmons said in a statement Thursday that the settlement has not been finalized.
"The parties are still working through a few details," he said. "In addition, the potential settlement must be approved by the Waller County Commissioner’s court, which has not yet occurred."
Simmons said the settlement was supposed to remain confidential until finalized.
"The Waller County defendants intend to honor this commitment. The Waller County defendants also emphasize they vigorously deny any fault or wrongdoing, and the potential settlement does not involve any such admissions," Simmons said.
"Although the settlement amount is confidential until approved, it does not involve the expenditure of any County funds, other than a modest $1,000 deductible. Once the settlement is final, the County will be issuing a formal press release."
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said the agency has not been involved in a settlement.
"DPS has not settled litigation regarding Sandra Bland and is not a party to any agreements between the plaintiffs and Waller County defendants," he said in an email.
In January, a Waller County grand jury indicted Encinia on a perjury charge. The panel concluded there was evidence he lied about the circumstances under which Bland exited her car.
Footage from dashboard camera video shows Encinia opening Bland's driver's side door and reaching in for her. She refuses to come out, and Encinia threatens to use a Taser on her. In his report, Encinia writes: "I had Bland exit the vehicle to further conduct a safe traffic investigation."
After Encinia's indictment, DPS Director Steve McCraw began the process of firing Encinia. The former trooper is appealing the decision to the Texas Public Safety Commission.
Encinia has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in the criminal case. If convicted of the Class A misdemeanor, he could face up to a year in the Waller County Jail and a $4,000 fine. A status hearing in the criminal case is scheduled for October.
The settlement in the lawsuit has no effect on the criminal case, said Phoebe Smith, a Houston attorney and special prosecutor in Encinia's case.
Read more Sandra Bland coverage:
- A Year Later, Sandra Bland's Death Propels Calls for Reform – Sandra Bland's 2015 arrest, and death three days later in the Waller County Jail, remain catalysts for lawmakers, activists and policy experts seeking reforms in various facets of Texas criminal justice.
- Judge Orders County, State to Release More Sandra Bland Footage – A federal judge Thursday ordered Waller County and the state of Texas to show the legal team representing Sandra Bland's family the original videos from her time in jail.
Trooper Who Arrested Sandra Bland Formally Fired – Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw has issued a termination letter for Brian Encinia, the trooper who arrested Sandra Bland.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2016/09/15/sandra-blands-family-settles-wrongful-death-lawsui/.