Va. state Sen. Creigh Deeds settles lawsuit over his son’s death for $950,000: Will It Wake Up Legislators?

(10-18-18) This is the second high-profile wrongful death lawsuit in Virginia that has been settled. Earlier this month, Fairfax County agreed to pay $750,000 to the family of Natasha McKenna, who died from a heart attack after being repeatedly stunned with a taser in jail. Another $60 million wrongful death lawsuit still is pending because of the starvation death of Jamycheal Mitchell at the Hampton Roads jail. In all three of these incidents, the individuals who died had a serious mental illness. In all three cases, their deaths could have been prevented.

Money does not ease the loss or pain, but these lawsuits can serve as wake up calls to legislators and the public. Will they?

State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds settled a wrongful-death lawsuit brought over the suicide of his son, Austin “Gus” Deeds. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

 Virginia state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds has settled a wrongful-death lawsuit against a former employee of a public mental-health agency that failed to find a hospital bed for his mentally ill son, who in 2013 stabbed the senator before killing himself.

Deeds (D-Bath), who was his party’s 2009 nominee for governor, settled the lawsuit for $950,000, his attorneys announced Wednesday. He had originally sought $6 million.

“My son is dead. No amount of money can make that right, bring him back or fill the hole in my heart,” Deeds said in a statement. “Our nation is built on personal responsibility. The legal process, which relies on financial damages, is the means by which that notion of personal responsibility is enforced. It’s not a perfect process.”

Filed in Bath County Circuit Court, the suit alleged that the state, the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board, and mental-health evaluator Michael Gentry exhibited gross negligence and medical malpractice by mishandling a crucial six-hour window for admitting Deeds’s son on Nov. 18, 2013.

Deeds later dropped the state from the case, and the judge found the community services board was protected by sovereign immunity. That left Gentry as the sole defendant. The state’s risk-management fund will cover the cost of the settlement.

In seeking a psychiatric bed, the lawsuit said, Gentry failed to contact hospitals that had beds available for 24-year-old Austin “Gus” Deeds, a William & Mary student.

The next morning, Gus Deeds stabbed his father 13 times before fatally shooting himself with a rifle. Deeds was hospitalized for three days.

Since the tragic incident, Virginia has passed a law that allows more time to find psychiatric placements for patients under custody orders and requires the state to maintain a “real-time” online registry of available beds.

Deeds’s attorneys, John E. Lichtenstein and Gregory L. Lyons, said in a written statement that they hoped the lawsuit would be “a catalyst for positive change in crisis mental health services in the Commonwealth.”

Gentry’s lawyer, Rosalie Pemberton Fessier, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Nov. 18, 2013, a local judge issued an emergency custody order for Austin Deeds after his father expressed grave concern about his behavior, and the young man was taken to Bath Community Hospital. He waited for several hours before the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board dispatched Gentry to conduct an evaluation. The lawsuit says Gentry knew or should have known of Deeds’s history of mental illness and previous suicide attempts.

Gentry did not evaluate the young man until the initial four-hour custody order had nearly expired. He determined that Deeds met the criteria for hospitalization and began calling facilities to find a placement, while the local judge extended the custody order for two additional hours.

Of a list of more than two dozen facilities, Gentry contacted seven private facilities — although he said he contacted 10, according to the lawsuit.

At least five area hospitals had beds available, the lawsuit said. Gentry tried to fax one of them, Rockingham Memorial Hospital, twice, but he used the wrong number and did not follow up.

The state had long been aware of shortcomings in the mental-health services system.

After the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, the state inspector general in 2012 published a report that highlighted the problem of “streeting,” or releasing people who pose a threat to themselves or others because psychiatric beds are unavailable, the lawsuit said.

At the time, the state did not carry out the report’s recommendations, including creating an online bed registry and interventions for when beds are not found.

The community services board — covering Rockbridge, Bath, Lexington and Buena Vista — administers services for people in mental-health crisis on behalf of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.



About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.