Federal jury rules against DCS, awards family $31.3 million

October 7, 2015

The family of a 14-year-old Pulaski County girl who died as a result of prescription error has been awarded $31.3 million in a judgment against state agents who wrongly removed the couple’s children from their home and prosecuted the parents for their daughter’s death.

A jury in the U.S. Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division, returned the verdict Tuesday against officials from the Department of Child Services and an Indiana State Police detective.

Jessica Salyer was born with a congenital heart defect and suffered seizures before she died in December 2005, shortly after a doctor doubled her dosage of the blood-thinning medication Coumadin and took her off an anti-seizure medication.

“DCS and state police suspected foul play but there wasn’t any,” said Indianapolis attorney Rich Waples, who represented parents Roman Finnegan and Lynnette Finnegan, and their children Johnathon Abair, Tabitha Abair, and Katelynn Salyer.

“It was a fair and appropriate measure of their damages,” Waples said of the verdict. “Pretty staggering harm was caused.”

Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, said in a statement no decision has been made on whether the state will appeal or seek to reduce the award. He said the case was inherently complicated and jurors had to listen to difficult evidence.

“Here, the State’s position was that the State defendants who investigated the child’s death acted reasonably under the circumstances, based on the information available to them at the time, and consistent with the State’s duty to protect children and enforce laws for public safety. The award, while large, is $70 million less than the total that the plaintiffs’ lawyers suing the State had asked for in their final arguments. This type of award is based on claims under federal civil rights statutes and therefore is not limited by the tort claim cap under state law.”

The Finnegans were charged in Jessica’s death and their children removed from their home and placed in foster care. Waples said DCS officials later ignored evidence including the coroner’s conclusion that a prescription error resulting in overdose caused Jessica’s death. He said investigators tried to frame the couple by doctoring and falsifying documents sent to a state fatality review team.

“It was beyond the pale, and the jury understood that,” Waples said, noting the coroner testified for the plaintiffs. Charges against the couple were dropped as were child in need of services investigations.

After the parents were charged and children removed from the home, Roman Finnegan was fired from his job at the Department of Correction. The family lost its home and was forced to sell off nearly all its possessions. “It literally destroyed the family,” Waples said. “They’ve been essentially destitute for the better part of nine years.” Finnegan has been rehired by DOC.

In total, the jury awarded Roman Finnegan $8.975 million; Lynette Finnegan $7.725 million; Tabitha $5.25 million; Katelyn $5.2 million and Jonathon $4.2 million.

The jury awarded compensatory damages on 22 violations of First, Fourth and 14th Amendment violations involving the Finnegans and their children. In nearly each of those, the jury found former Pulaski County DCS Director Laurel Myers most liable.

Jurors awarded lesser damages against Regina McAninch, a former DCS investigator and caseworker, Reba James, a regional DCS director under former director James Payne who is now listed on DCS’ website as deputy director of permanency and practice support, and Jennifer McDonald, an Indiana State Police detective.

Corbin noted the jury rejected all claims for punitive damages and cleared two of six defendants represented by the state – Payne and case manager Tracy Salyers.

The trial was conducted by District Judge Rudy Lozano. The case is Roman Finnegan, et al. v. Laurel Myers, et al., 3:08-CV-503. Along with Waples, the plaintiffs were represented by a team consisting of Indianapolis attorney Ron Waicukauski, Winamac attorney Kevin Tankersley and Seattle attorney Heather Kirkwood.

Read more about this case in the Oct. 21 issue of Indiana Lawyer.


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