PHOENIX — Maricopa County officials have agreed to pay $240,000 to settle a lawsuit that alleges a mentally ill jail inmate died from stress he suffered when he mistakenly viewed officers' efforts to forcibly clothe him in a jail uniform as a rape attempt.
The unanimous vote Wednesday by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors resolves the lawsuit by the estate of Eric Vogel, whose family lost a jury trial but later succeeded in getting the verdict thrown out. County officials, who met behind closed doors days earlier to discuss the case, approved the settlement without making any public comments.
The settlement comes two weeks after county officials agreed to pay $620,000 to settle another lawsuit by the family of Weitse Ten Boden, who authorities say was fatally beaten in 2010 by his cellmate in a Maricopa County jail.
The county has paid more than $25 million in claims over its jails since Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has made a name for himself on the national political stage with his tough jail policies, took office in 1993.
The case by Vogel's family is known for an appeals court's stinging criticism of Arpaio's signature policy of dressing inmates in pink underwear. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the pink underwear appears to be punishment without legal justification and that it's fair to infer that the selection of pink as the underwear's color was meant to symbolize the loss of prisoners' masculinity.
The sheriff's office, which didn't immediately respond to a request for comment late Wednesday morning, has said it would have prevailed again at the second trial and explained that the settlement was a move by the county's risk managers to limit legal costs.
"I'm happy that the pain that the Vogel family endured is about to be put to rest," said Joel Robbins, an attorney who brought the Vogel and Boden lawsuits. "Hopefully the county will change its policies in the future in dealing with the mentally ill. Eric Vogel was unable to comply with dressing out."
The case centers on Vogel's refusal to get out of his street clothes after the 36-year-old was arrested in November 2001 for assaulting an officer who was responding to a burglary call.
A group of officers in one of Arpaio's jails stripped Vogel and put him in pink underwear and other prison clothing as he shouted that he was being raped. The lawsuit said Vogel believed he was going to be dressed as a woman so detention officers could rape him. The sheriff's office said the officers tried to assure Vogel that they weren't sexually attacking him.
The lawyer for Vogel's estate has said the officers didn't sexually assault Vogel and that his client didn't suffer injuries at the jail.
Vogel, who was determined by a counselor to have had paranoia and delusions, died about two weeks after his release from jail after he and his mother got in a minor car accident.
When the officer handling the accident told Vogel that he might be jailed on a warrant stemming from his previous struggle to wear jail clothes, Vogel panicked and ran several miles from the scene to his home. He died the next day, and medical examiners concluded the cause of death was a heart attack.
In the earlier settlement, county officials voted Aug. 27 to pay $620,000 to resolve a lawsuit by the family of Weitse Ten Boden, who died eight days after investigators say he suffered a brutal beating from his cellmate in June 2010.
The lawsuit alleges that Arpaio's office shouldn't have housed the two men together and should have known that Lamont Rider, who is black, would consider Boden, who is white and speaks with a Dutch accent, to be a member of the Aryan Nation. Boden's lawyer said his client has no affiliation with the white-supremacist group.
Rider, who was in jail for a minor assault arrest, was later charged with second-degree murder in Boden's death. He has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge.
Boden was in jail on suspicion of sexually assaulting a teenage girl.