Gwinnett County settles taser death suit
Lawsuit ends in $100,000 payout to victim’s family
LAWRENCEVILLE — Three Gwinnett County officials quietly settled a Taser-related wrongful-death lawsuit by paying $100,000 to a victim’s family without a public vote or discussion.
The settlement, obtained this week by The Atlanta JournalConstitution through openrecords laws, says the county barred the victim’s family and lawyers from telling the public or news media about the payout or even that a settlement happened.
The settlement ended a wrongful-death suit brought by the family of Ray Charles Austin, who died in September 2003 after being shocked repeatedly with a Taser at the Gwinnett County Jail.
Austin, 25, had been in a fight in which he bit off part of a deputy’s ear.
In December, county officials agreed to pay Austin’s family $100,000 to dismiss the lawsuit. According to the settlement papers, the only public statement that could be made about the deal was that “the case has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.”
County attorney Karen Thomas said the nondisclosure language is typical.
But Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, questioned the secret nature of spending public money.
“Decisions have to be made in public,” she said.
Officials say a Gwinnett County ordinance allows settlements of $100,000 or less to be decided by the county attorney, county administrator and county risk manager, as long as the chairman, an elected official, approves.
A separate Gwinnett Coun- ty lawsuit is still pending over the 2004 Taser-related death of Frederick Williams.
Last month another man, Carlos Rodriguez, died after being shocked with a Taser. No suit has been filed in that case, but the victim’s family recently was on television asking for a lawyer.
Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway said he agreed such settlements should be handled discreetly, saying it could save money.
“I think it is to the benefit of taxpayers to do it that way,” said Conway. “If the county advertises that they settled a case, it will invite more people to sue.”