A Minnesota man with mental illness who was severely beaten in the Beltrami County jail last year — and then released by a judge so the county wouldn’t be responsible for his medical bills — has sued his jailers and county officials in federal court in Minneapolis.
The negligence lawsuit by Theran Stai, filed Tuesday, alleges that after he was beaten in the jail, county authorities persuaded a judge to temporarily release him from county custody. Deputies then dropped Stai off at a Minneapolis hospital with no assurance that he would receive proper care, according to legal records reviewed by the Star Tribune. Stai is seeking $1 million in damages for prolonged physical pain and anguish.
Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp, who is among five officials named in the suit, said Tuesday he could not comment.
The incident, first recounted in a 2013 Star Tribune series, outraged state mental-health advocates and the chief public defender in northwestern Minnesota. They said the case illustrated widespread ignorance about the care of people with mental illness, who represent as many as one-third of inmates held in Minnesota’s county jails.
Last year, for example, Hennepin County paid $1 million to settle a negligence lawsuit by an inmate who tried to stab his eyes out while suffering a psychiatric crisis in the county jail.
After Stai suffered a broken jaw and other injuries from a jailhouse beating in September 2013, Beltrami County Judge John Melbye agreed to furlough him, a move that shifted his medical costs from the county to the federal-state Medicaid program. Stai’s jaw was so badly fractured that doctors in Bemidji concluded he would require reconstructive surgery at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, according to legal records. Stai’s unpaid medical bills eventually ran to more than $44,000, according to court documents.
At the time, Melbye admitted that he granted the furlough without reviewing Stai’s criminal and mental health file, a set of documents that outline numerous hospitalizations for bipolar condition. Melbye said his decision was based on medical necessity, not which party would pay medical bills. “This is just how we’ve done it in the past,” Melbye said in an interview at the time, adding that he was not certain Stai could be classified as a vulnerable adult, despite his mental illness.
But Kris Kolar, chief public defender for Minnesota’s 9th Judicial District, faulted the decision, saying the case represented an abuse of power from the bench to the jail. She said Melbye and jailers “had a moral, ethical and legal obligation to take care of this man.”
When Beltrami County deputies dropped him off at the hospital in Minneapolis, Stai was left to fend for himself, records show. A day after his surgery, Stai was released without anyone from the county waiting for him.
“Left to his own devices, Theran attempted to walk [home] to Bemidji,” the suit says. “It took him approximately six days to walk 188 miles to Walker.” The suit says that en route, Stai slept in empty cargo trailers and makeshift cardboard shelters and suffered such severe blistering on his feet that he lost several toenails. When Stai showed up weeks later at the Sanford Medical Center’s emergency room in Bemidji, doctors found that Stai’s fractured jaw had become infected, and he said he’d been drinking “to take the pain away,” according to medical records.
Suffering from psychosis, Stai was eventually transferred to the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center.