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State agrees to pay family $25M to settle DCS case

May 25, 2017

Indiana will pay $25 million to conclude a northern Indiana family’s decade-long legal fight to clear their names after the Department of Child Services falsely prosecuted them for their daughter’s death.

Roman and Lynnette Finnegan and their three children – Johnathon Abair, Tabitha Abair, and Katelynn Salyer – will share in the settlement confirmed Wednesday by their Indianapolis attorney, Ron Waicukauski of Price Waicukauski Joven & Catlin, LLC.

“It’s fair to say we’re very pleased this is finally resolved after so many years,” Waicukauski said. “The family has received a significant measure of justice,” he said, from “parties who were responsible for causing enormous suffering.”

A federal jury in 2015 awarded the Finnegans $31.3 million against Pulaski County DCS agents and an Indiana State Police detective. The verdict included $12 million for conduct by state actors that jurors found shocked the conscience. Last year, the state appealed the verdict to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The case was dismissed Wednesday after parties filed a joint motion noting settlement had been reached. The Chicago appeals court earlier this year ordered mediation in the long-running matter.

A spokesman for the Indiana Department of Child Services did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office, which represented DCS in the litigation, released a copy of the settlement agreement Thursday afternoon.

Among the settlement terms, Chief Counsel of Appeals Stephen Creason said in a statement, “The parties agree and understand that in reaching this agreement, the state defendants have denied and continue to deny any fault, wrongdoing or liability on their respective parts with respect to all of the claims made against them and as part of this lawsuit. This settlement has been reached solely to avoid the uncertainties of litigation and the expenses, which have been and will be incurred in the prosecution and/or defense of this matter.”

According to the settlement, the $25 million will be paid from the Indiana Tort Claims Fund.

The jury’s verdict came after a 15-day trial before District Judge Rudy Lozano in the District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. Lozano later affirmed the jury verdict after the state petitioned that it be reduced, ruling there was no reason to conclude it was excessive or unreasonable. The state subsequently appealed.

The Finnegans’ daughter, Jessica, died in the family’s Francesville home in 2005, and DCS investigators suspected abuse. But even after an investigation showed the girl died due to prescribed medication that caused a fatal drug interaction with another medication she took to treat a lifelong heart condition, DCS continued to pursue false neglect substantiations against the parents.
 
A Pulaski County judge found investigators had falsified official records to justify the false substantiations that he ruled were arbitrary and capricious. DCS’ intervention also resulted in the removal of the Finnegans’ other children, who were placed in foster care.

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; and Jennifer McDonald, an Indiana State Police detective.

Waicukauski said the $25 million settlement includes legal fees but declined to say how much of the sum will be paid to attorneys who’ve handled the matter. In 2016, four lawyers petitioned the Northern District for fees of $2.8 million. Lozano stayed the petition until the case was resolved on appeal.
 

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