Odd Lawsuits Plague Arkansas County Sheriffs

By HUNTER FIELD, The Jonesboro Sun | November 5, 2015

A newly booked male inmate steadfastly argued with Craighead County jail administrators that he needed medical attention.

He claimed to have perhaps the rarest disease in the world. In a scientific marvel, the man diagnosed himself with ovarian cancer and told guards he would need to see a doctor right away.

The man clearly didn’t have ovaries, so the medical request was denied.

Several months passed, and the bizarre incident was forgotten as much as a man claiming to have ovarian cancer could be. Until Craighead County Sheriff Marty Boyd was served papers one day; the man was suing the jail for violating his 8th Amendment rights. The lawsuit was swiftly declared frivolous.

The specifics of the incident were unusual, but Boyd and Jail Administrator Matt Hall have grown accustomed to an influx of lawsuits from former and current inmates. Almost all the lawsuits are quickly dismissed, but that doesn’t mean they don’t demand an excessive amount of time, resources, manpower and taxpayers’ money.

“Not a week goes by that I don’t have to deal with our attorneys and lawsuits,” Boyd said, estimating he and several of his deputies spend about four hours each week addressing lawsuits.

The Jonesboro Sun reports Boyd has dealt with a steady stream of lawsuits since taking office in 2013, but he and Hall have noticed an increase over the last six months to a year. The uptick may be tied to the increased scrutiny placed on law enforcement in the last 12 months, Boyd said, and the sheriff also mentioned a trend of fewer people being willing to accept responsibility for their actions.

Some of the lawsuits are as strange as they are numerous. A man in another county in Arkansas once sued the local sheriff because the jail served chunky peanut butter instead of smooth peanut butter.

A Muslim inmate sued Boyd several months ago because the Craighead County Detention Center doesn’t have a shaman on retainer to bless the meals.

Another inmate in Jonesboro sued Boyd because jail guards wouldn’t give him access to the kitchen to cook his own food.

Still another sued the sheriff because the only channel on the cell block television was KAIT, and he didn’t like KAIT.

Before Boyd was elected sheriff, he transported an inmate to the dentist and was sued because the dentist refused to prescribe the inmate pain medication. All Boyd did was transport him.

All the cases were eventually thrown out of court, but none could be ignored.

“I don’t want to say they’re all frivolous,” Boyd said. “We’re human. We’re going to make mistakes, but most of the time they do get tossed out. The biggest thing for me is I want to learn from them. Even if they are frivolous, I want to read the complaints and learn what we can improve.”

The county pays about $74,000 a year to a law firm in Little Rock for general liability risk management. Any time a lawsuit is served, that firm handles it. Since Boyd was elected, no cases have ever gone to trial. All have been thrown out, and none were settled outside of court.

Plaintiffs with enough money must pay a filing fee, but many are declared indigent and never pay, forcing taxpayers to shoulder the load, Boyd said.

It’s a statewide issue Boyd added, and he suggested forming a commission or board to review inmate lawsuits before they ever go to court. The board would ensure frivolous claims don’t take as much of a toll on local governmental resources.

“The current process has been in place for a long time, but times have changed,” Boyd said. “Incarceration is up, and it may be good to look at changing some stuff.”

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