$2 million settlement reached in Cass County inmate death

March 07, 2019 06:28 PM

Cass County confirmed Thursday that it will pay $2 million to the family of a mentally ill man who died in a jail holding cell a day after drinking toxic windshield wiper fluid – a fact that lawyers say was known to members of the jail's staff who were responsible for the inmate's safety and failed to call for help in the hours before his death.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS obtained surveillance video from a jail transport van that was taking 54 year-old Darren Benais back to the jail after a doctor's appointment on March 14th, 2018. His lawyers say he had long suffered from a variety of physical and mental health issues.

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Video from the transport van shows Benais repeatedly drinking from a gallon container of blue windshield wiper fluid, ingesting as much as 16 ounces of the poisonous liquid, according to attorneys for Benais' estate.

His lawyers say they don't know if Benais was trying to kill himself by drinking the windshield wiper fluid, but they say what happened over the 12 hours after corrections officers returned Benais to his cell amounted to deliberate indifference.

"They collectively did nothing," said attorney Katie Bennett. "They didn't Google what to do, they didn't call poison control, they didn't call a doctor, they didn't talk to the nursing staff – they did nothing."

Video shows corrections officers making checks of Benais in his cell over the course of more than 12 hours, but Bennett says by the time someone called EMS the next morning, it was too late and Benais was pronounced dead in his cell.

Additional video from the sally port of the jail shows an officer apparently inspecting the container of windshield wiper fluid shortly after Benais had been returned to his cell. Lawyers say the label on the product contained warnings that it contained methanol, a poisonous type of alcohol.

"Mr. Benais' life could have been saved, which I also think is a horrific fact," Bennett said.

Administrators at the jail and Cass County offices declined interview requests from 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, but their attorney Jason Hiveley emailed the following statement on Thursday afternoon:

"Cass County and the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust agreed to pay $2 million to Darren Benais's estate in exchange for a dismissal of any claims stemming from the events surrounding his death. There was no admission of wrongdoing and no non-monetary terms were included. However, the involved staff were disciplined and received unpaid suspensions. Additionally, in an effort to prevent a tragedy like this from occurring again, all staff completed comprehensive poison prevention training and safety measures were implemented to prevent inmates from accessing and ingesting poisonous chemicals in the future."

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Eric Rasmussen

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