JUDGE WON'T DISMISS FRINK LAWSUIT
By Venita Jenkins
LUMBERTON - A Superior Court judge on Monday denied a motion to dismiss part of a negligence lawsuit against Columbus County, its sheriff and jail staff.
The family of Dewayne Devon Frink filed the lawsuit in July 2005 against Columbus County Sheriff Chris Batten and Robeson County Sheriff Kenneth Sealey. The lawsuit alleges that the sheriffs and their jail staffs were negligent and caused Frink's death.
Frink, 22, hanged himself while in the Columbus County Jail in July 2003. He was being held on traffic and probation violations, according to court records.
Lawyers representing Columbus County asked that the lawsuit against their client be dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity - a provision that prevents governments from being sued under certain circumstances.
Judge Jim Ammons also denied motions filed by the lawyers for Frink's family.
One of the family's lawyers, Dan Blue of Raleigh, asked the court to rule on whether Columbus County officials were negligent and whether county officials waived their sovereign, or governmental, immunity when the county purchased a bond for its sheriff and additional insurance.
Ammons said all of the issues should be heard at trial. He also ruled that an out-of-district judge should preside over the case. The sheriff's offices involved in the lawsuit provide security for courts in the district.
"We do not want to complicate that," he said.
Robeson County was not part of the motions heard Monday. Scott Hart, the lawyer for Robeson County, said the county is gathering documents for discovery.
The lawsuit is scheduled for trial April 14.
Transfer to Robeson Frink was taken to the Columbus County Jail in April 2003. He was transferred to the Robeson County Jail because of crowding. On June 14, 2003, he asked to see a psychiatrist and signed an agreement not to harm himself.
Over the next few weeks, Frink tried to commit suicide three times by hanging himself, according to court records.
Robeson County officials notified Columbus County officials about Frink's behavior and asked them to send an officer to take Frink back to Columbus County, the lawsuit stated. He was returned to Columbus County on July, 7, 2003. He killed himself two days later.
Lawyers spent most of the morning arguing the issue of immunity and whether Columbus County was liable.
Lawyers for Columbus County claim officials were not aware of Frink's suicidal attempts because Robeson County did not hand over his medical records and medication prescribed to him by a doctor.
But Columbus County officials should have known because Frink was still their responsibility, Blue said.
"(Batten) sending him to Robeson County did not change his primary responsibility of the inmate," Blue said. "The sheriff should know everything that Robeson County should know."
Robeson County was acting as an agent for Columbus County, he said.
Blue also told the court there was a violation of public safety. Frink did not receive the medical care that he needed, Blue said. The jail failed to re-evaluate Frink when he returned to Columbus County.
Also, Columbus jailers failed to check on Frink twice within an hour.
Frink was placed in a cell with 10 other inmates, said Allan R. Gitter, one of the lawyers for Columbus County. None of them reported any erratic behavior by Frink. Also, the jailers checked on Frink throughout the evening and spoke with him.
It is up to the jury to decide whether the jailers' action were negligent and caused Frink's death, not the court, Gitter said.
Dhamian Blue, another lawyer for the Frink family, said Batten's immunity was waived when the county bought a $50,000 bond for him. According to state statute, the purchase of the bond waives governmental immunity, he said.
Two insurance policies waive immunity for Batten, jail administrator Alexander Singletary and former County Manager Billy Joe Farmer, who is also named in the lawsuit, Dhamian Blue said.
The insurance covers claims that do not fall under immunity, said Christopher Geis, one of Columbus County's lawyers. Geis also said that a claim against a bond is separate from any other claim.
"It does not mean we waive immunity," Geis said. ". The plaintiff is trying to say if you have a bond, you can never raise the case of sovereign immunity as a defense."
Staff writer Venita Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (910) 738-9158.