Midtown Raleigh News

Wake sheriff faces lawsuit in jail overdose death

The day Ralph Madison Stockton IV died, numerous Wake jail staff noticed he behaved as if he was on drugs. He admitted he was taking methadone to combat a drug problem, gave away money to other inmates and wanted to report drug dealers to a detective, records show.

But none of that behavior triggered the kind of monitoring or medical attention that might have prevented the 19-year-old from dying in his sleep from an overdose the following morning.

This month, Stockton’s family filed a lawsuit against the county, Sheriff Donnie Harrison and 16 others in his department, claiming their gross negligence and other “wilful (sic) and wanton” acts may have prevented them from stopping his death.

The suit calls for compensatory and punitive damages.

“Defendants had more than sufficient knowledge of the likely cause of Ralph’s medical condition and had immediate access to the medical assistance required, yet they acted with deliberate indifference to and in blatant disregard for Ralph’s safety,” according to the lawsuit, filed by attorney Tom Comerford of Winston-Salem.

Capt. Jimmy Stevens, a department spokesman, said there would be no comment because the suit is pending. The department has previously said that the actions of deputies and jail staff that day and night did not contribute to Stockton’s death.

Stockton, the grandson and namesake of a prominent Winston-Salem lawyer, died Nov. 6, 2011. He had been picked up by a sheriff’s deputy the previous day after a convenience store clerk noticed Stockton, who lived in Raleigh, and a friend behaving oddly. Fearing both were too impaired to drive, the clerk called police.

A deputy pulled Stockton over, and that’s when Stockton made a decision that put him in peril. As the deputy searched the car’s trunk, Stockton swallowed a stash of pills so they wouldn’t be found in the search.

The internal investigation showed that from then, numerous law enforcement and jail staff, including a nurse, noticed Stockton’s erratic behavior. Some surmised that he was on drugs. Meanwhile, Stockton’s mother, Tanya Stockton, said she contacted the jail repeatedly to alert them to her son’s drug problem.

But that night, Stockton was led to a mat on the floor of the overcrowded jail. Inmates said he appeared to have trouble breathing and admitted to taking drugs before entering the jail, but jail officers dismissed their concerns, the lawsuit said.

State regulations require that all jail inmates be checked at least twice an hour, but when an inmate is suspected of being impaired, the monitoring is supposed to increase to four times an hour. State health officials determined three months after Stockton’s death that he had not been monitored at the minimum standard for all inmates.

The lawsuit said Stockton’s death is one of several cases in the jail since 2010 in which inmates either died or were injured because they were poorly monitored and the staff was poorly trained.