WILMINGTON, Del. — The state has agreed to pay more than $7.5 million to settle a federal lawsuit filed by the family of a correctional officer killed during an 18-hour siege at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center on Feb. 1.
Six prison workers taken hostage during the standoff also were part of the civil lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware against former Govs. Ruth Ann Minner and Jack Markell and other state officials.
The settlement announced Friday afternoon by former federal judge Joseph J. Farnan Jr. is believed to be Delaware's largest payout to settle a civil lawsuit.
The settlement comes five months after attorneys representing state officials asked U.S. District Judge Richard G. Andrews to dismiss the matter. In their petition to Andrews, attorneys argued there was no constitutional right to workplace safety.
They also claimed that allocation of public funds is not something left for juries to "interpret."
The parties have agreed the claims remain in dispute and that the settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing by the Delaware Department of Correction, the state or any present or former state official named in the lawsuit, according to a statement released.
The parties are settling to avoid the burden and expense that comes with protracted litigation and to bring closure to the matter.
Farnan's release also contained comments from plaintiffs and defendants:
"Each of the injured parties and their families wishes to thank the general public, the members of the [Correctional Officers Association of Delaware] Union, the Delaware and Maryland State Troopers and other law enforcement officers on the scene on Feb. 1st and 2nd, 2017, first responders and the media," plaintiffs stated.
The defendants' comments dismissed plaintiffs' legal claims, before offering their condolences:
“For the reasons stated in our court fillings, the claims against all of the individual defendants lacked legal merit,” the statement read. “All of the defendants wish to express, however, their condolences and respect. It is their hope that this settlement with the Department of Correction will provide a measure of comfort to the officers, employees and their families, whose services and sacrifice should be honored by all Delawareans.”
Attorneys from the Neuberger Firm and Jacobs & Crumpler, who represented the family of slain corrections officer Lt. Steven Floyd and six other prison employees held hostage during the siege, could not be immediately reached for comment Friday afternoon.
Gov. John Carney's office issued a more hopeful statement, claiming officials are committed to improving prison safety.
"My hope is this settlement provides some measure of relief to the officers, employees and families involved," Carney said in a statement. "As a state, we remain committed to taking all appropriate action to improve safety and security across Delaware's correctional facilities. We owe that to the memory of Lieutenant Floyd."
In October, 18 inmates were indicted in connection with the siege.
Sixteen of the men were charged with first-degree murder, two counts of first-degree assault, four counts of first-degree kidnapping, one count of riot and one count of conspiracy. Two others were charged with first-degree kidnapping, second-degree conspiracy and a riot charge.
The case, if it goes to trial, will likely cost the state millions of dollars.
In April, lawyers representing Floyd and the other employees filed their lawsuit claiming state officials put money before safety at the Department of Correction for more than 16 years. The lawsuit also said the deadly standoff was a direct result of Minner's and Markell's administrations understaffing state prisons.
The complaint claimed the shortage – particularly under Markell's watch – led to an increase in violence at Vaughn, including the assault of at least 25 prison workers in the fall of 2016.
"We've conclusively proven the guilt of Gov. Markell," attorney Thomas S. Neuberger told The News Journal in August. "The blood is on his hands for the torture and death of Lt. Floyd."
Some of what the lawsuit alleged was backed by an independent report released Sept. 1 by former U.S. Attorney Charles Oberly III and retired Judge William Chapman.
The report found that the uprising within Vaughn was a long time coming – and likely could have happened in any part of the prison because of deteriorating conditions, overworked staff and inconsistent rules and regulations.
However, the combination of mixing gang members, the ebb and flow of inmates with varying security levels and a lack of action following a potential inmate protest earlier in January "hastened the inevitable," according to the report.
Carney has said he intends to tackle the dozens of recommendations made in the report and has already made some changes.
The lawsuit by Floyd's family and other employees, however, is the first of several lawsuits – both already filed or expected in the coming months – to settle in the wake of the riot.
Dover attorney Stephen Hampton is compiling a class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates inside Building C who say they were abused when officers breached the building to rescue Floyd and the counselor still held hostage inside. More than 100 inmates have written to Hampton, who has taken on the Department of Correction numerous times over health care and medical care inside prison walls.
The lawsuit has not yet been filed.
Last month, former prison culinary instructor Anthony Stella sued Delaware education officials in federal court, claiming state officials violated his free speech rights and breached the terms of his employment contract by terminating him without just cause.
Stella was working at the Smyrna-area maximum-security prison when inmates seized Building C. With the prison on lockdown, Stella said he and other prison workers could listen to hostage negotiations that were being broadcast over corrections officers' radios and, as officials later discovered, could also be heard by the public over broadband radio.
After being confined to the prison for several hours, Stella was driving home when he received a call from a News Journal reporter and began speaking to him about his experiences that day as "a private citizen on a matter of public interest." The interview was posted on the newspaper's website later that night.
Follow Brittany Horn on Twitter: @brittanyhorn. Contact Esteban Parra on Twitter: @eparra3.