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Record Recovery of 18.9 Million Dollars for Severely Brain Injured Girl
State of Wisconsin to Pay $18.9M to Settle Lawsuit Involving Copper Lake School For Girls
In what is reported to be the largest civil rights settlement ever paid by the State of Wisconsin, the State will pay 18.9 million dollars to Sydni Briggs to resolve her lawsuit against a number of State employees who worked at Copper Lake School for Girls, the sister campus to Lincoln Hills School for Boys. Attorney Eric J. Haag, of Atterbury, Kammer & Haag, S.C., in Middleton, WI, represented Miss Briggs and served as Lead Counsel in the case, venued in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
Briggs was sentenced to Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma, WI, on July 6, 2015, at age 16. She was well-behaved, respectful, and productive in the classroom at Copper Lake. She did, however, suffer from depression and anxiety, and self-harmed several times while at Copper Lake. While there, she received some minimal psychological services. Her treatment providers regularly instructed Miss Briggs to alert staff immediately if she felt the urge to harm herself. She successfully did that on at least one occasion. In October 2015, staff knew and even documented that there were many issues causing significant distress for Miss Briggs and that she needed to be watched closely.
On the morning of November 9, 2015, she turned on her call light. The policy was that the youth counselors on duty at the time were to respond to the call light immediately. Video evidence showed multiple youth counselors failing to respond to the call light despite ample opportunity to do so. The Youth Counselors alleged that they were unaware that the light was on despite the fact that the light was easily seen from numerous locations where staff were present. Finally, after nearly 24 minutes, one of the Youth Counselors responded and found Miss Briggs hanging from her door hinge, with no respirations and no pulse. She had torn apart her t-shirt and used it as a ligature. Her room had a camera in it which was visible at all times to counselors in the staff booth.
She was resuscitated, but survives with a severe hypoxic brain injury. She is in a wheel chair, living in an adult family home, and she will require ongoing care for the rest of her life at a cost of millions of dollars.
During more than two years of working on this case, Haag uncovered evidence which proved that youth counselors falsified a log which required staff to initial when they had completed mandatory 15 minute hall checks. In fact, no such hall checks were conducted during the pertinent time frame. Moreover, an internationally renowned hanging expert opined that Miss Briggs did not initiate hanging herself until more than 20 minutes after she had turned on her call light. The institution’s post-incident investigation found no wrongdoing based in large part upon sparse, incomplete interviews and demonstrably false accounts of Briggs’ mental health history at the school.
The settlement money will be used to fund a special needs trust for Sydni Briggs. There were no other plaintiffs in the case. Attorney Paul Kinne served as co-counsel for the plaintiff in the case. Attorney Haag commented, “I am satisfied that this historic settlement will have a real and significant impact on the quality of Sydni’s life, for the rest of her life. I would not have settled the case without achieving that goal. This was a very preventable tragedy and her life has been needlessly changed forever. It has been a profound privilege to represent her.”