Buffalo, NY, May 21, 2024 — A Buffalo, New York jury has awarded $100 million in damages to the estate of a 35-year-old man who died as a result of the actions of the County of Erie and five of its Sheriff deputies. 

The jury found that the County and five deputies deprived Richard Metcalf, Jr. of his right to adequate medical and mental health care and that he was subjected to excessive force while being restrained when an inmate in November 2012. 

According to the attorneys at Brown Chiari LLP who represented the estate, this is the largest civil rights death verdict in U.S. history. 

The Medical Examiner for Erie County had determined that Mr. Metcalf’s death was a “homicide,” but opined that the cause of death was a heart attack “brought on by stress.”   The State Commission of Correction concluded eight years ago that jail deputies asphyxiated Metcalf through their restraint methods, including tying a “spit mask” around his neck and putting a pillowcase over his head.

“Mr. Metcalf died two days after this event in the jail, yet before his death the County officials were already trying to influence the Medical Examiner’s opinion,” said Donald Chiari, Esq. who, along with Michael Scinta, Esq., tried the case on behalf of the Metcalf family.  According to Chiari, there were emails and documents sent to the Medical Examiner prior to the release of her final report that sought to influence her opinion. 

Famed pathologist, Michael Baden, M.D., who was also a member of the New York State Commission on Correction at the time of the investigation, was called to testify at trial by the family’s attorneys.  According to Baden, the combined effect of Mr. Metcalf being restrained in a prone position with his shackled legs being pushed forward toward his buttocks for twenty-nine minutes, the spit mask tied around his neck, and then a pillowcase placed over his head caused Mr. Metcalf’s death by asphyxiation.

Metcalf was arrested after suffering a psychotic episode that led him to break into a restaurant and hide in the cooler.  Metcalf, who had no prior criminal record, was held without bail pending a forensic mental exam.  While in his cell, he experienced another psychotic episode and was extracted before being brought to the infirmary, where he was inappropriately restrained for 29 minutes. 

“From the minute Mr. Metcalf entered the jail, the County failed to recognize his psychosis, which culminated in this tragedy,” said Scinta.  The County had a longstanding history of failing to provide appropriate medical and mental care and had been warned by the United States Department of Justice and the New York Commission on Correction prior to 2012, according to Scinta. 

According to the deputies, Mr. Metcalf was spitting blood, so the five deputies held him in a face-down position on an examination table.  A spit mask was then applied.  Mr. Metcalf chewed through the spit mask in order to spit more blood, according to the defendants.  According to Chiari, Mr. Metcalf chewed through the mask so he could breathe.  After chewing through the mask, the deputies made the inexplicable decision to place a pillowcase over Metcalf’s head, said Chiari.  It was not until the emergency medical technicians placed Mr. Metcalf in the ambulance and removed the pillowcase that it was discovered that the spit mask had been tightly tied around Metcalf’s neck.  One of the EMTs had to cut the mask off with surgical scissors.  The EMTs testified that upon arriving at the jail, the deputies would not allow them to assess Mr. Metcalf and controlled the gurney all the way to the ambulance.  By that time, Mr. Metcalf was in cardiac arrest. 

Metcalf was rushed to the nearest hospital, never regained consciousness, and died two days later. 

The jury awarded $95 million in compensatory damages for loss of life, pain and suffering, and fear of impending death.  The jury also awarded $5 million in punitive damages, $1 million against each of the five deputies.

Dr. Baden, Andrew Poreda, M.D., Nathasha Cervantes, M.D., and Arthur Wallenstein, a correctional expert, testified on behalf of the plaintiff.

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