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Wrongful death lawsuit against Hooper Bay ends with $900K settlement

  • Author: Jerzy Shedlock
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published January 20, 2016

After more than three years of proceedings and an Alaska Court of Appeals decision, the family of a man who hanged himself in a Hooper Bay jail cell has been awarded just under $900,000 in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The family's attorney, Jim Valcarce, says the $1.04 million initially awarded by a local jury was reduced by 20 percent due to an error in the jury instructions. The case was settled after prolonged negotiations with an insurance adjuster, he said.

If the parties hadn't reached a settlement, the case "would have required a whole new trial, because the jurors have got to decide liability and apportionment" for the suicide, Valcarce said. "The family would have had to come to court and talk about his death all over again."

Louis Bunyan, 21, killed himself using the drawstring of his shorts while in protective custody in a small cell at the Hooper Bay police station in June 2011. He left behind two children, siblings and his mother, Judy Bunyan, who sued Hooper Bay in August 2012 over his death.

A Bethel jury awarded about $1 million to Bunyan's family in February 2014. The city appealed three months later.

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in September that an incorrect jury instruction prevented jurors from properly assigning fault in the case; they had initially been told not to assign any fault to Bunyan. The Supreme Court said they should have been able to divide the fault between the city and Bunyan. Valcarce said the higher court upheld the lower court's verdict, however.

According to the Supreme Court's opinion, Hooper Bay Police Department policy dictated that officers check in on Bunyan every five minutes.

A summary of the trial noted that it's likely only two checks occurred in 38 minutes. Two officers admitted they'd been browsing Facebook instead of keeping a watchful eye on Bunyan, who was in protective custody after drunkenly arguing and fighting with family members.

Attorney William Ingaldson, who represented Hooper Bay, did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday.

Judy Bunyan said in court filings that she and her son were very close. Being disabled, she relied on Louis for cooking, repairs to her home and other chores, she said.

The mother declined an interview, but through her attorney she said she is glad the ordeal is over.

"I'm glad it's over; I did not want to go (to) court again. I miss my son every day and wish he was still here. I pray his death helps others know -- they have to watch, closely, those they take into jail," Judy Bunyan said, relayed through an email from Valcarce.

A new jury trial was set for late December, but the settlement was reached before then. Online court records show the settlement was officially put on the record last Thursday.

Valcarce worked with another Yukon-Kuskokwim lawyer, David Henderson, on the case. They echoed Judy Bunyan's hope that the case makes a difference.

"We're pleased it's resolved," Henderson said. "With all the problems in Alaska's jails, people needlessly dying, we hope that changes will take place."