Man hit by car in mental health breakdown suing city for negligence

In the waning hours of New Year's Day 2012, Gary Richard Lawman found himself on Interstate 80 near where it hurtles toward the western span of the Bay Bridge.

The San Jose resident was naked and in the middle of a mental health crisis — and then he was hit by a truck.

What followed was a long coma.

Hours before he wandered onto the interstate, the 52-year-old had been arrested by police officers who found him acting strangely in front of a downtown hotel.

Thinking he was intoxicated, the police who arrested him at 9:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve threw him into the drunk tank at County Jail. As is protocol, Lawman was released four hours later at 1:30 a.m.

Lawman, originally from the United Kingdom, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder late in life and it was complications with his medicines, not alcohol, that induced the New Year's Eve crisis in downtown San Francisco, according to his lawyers.

That is where he was arrested and then released early in the morning on Jan. 1, 2012. Then, at 10:55 that night, he was hit by a truck while he wandered naked on the highway and sustained major injuries.

Now, three years later, Lawman's lawyers are suing The City for negligence, false imprisonment and civil-rights violations, according to their civil suit filed Aug. 11 and set for its next hearing in February.

The suit argues that the officer's assessment of Lawman as drunk was wrong and the jail nurses' failure to note his mental health status led to the freeway incident.

“Despite the fact that [Lawman] exhibited signs that he was having a mental health emergency requiring immediate medical care, the [defendants] failed to take reasonable steps to furnish such care, instead leaving [Lawman] in a drunk tank, where his condition worsened.”

Because of this lack of care, the suit continues, Lawman became a danger to himself, “such that when he was eventually released from custody, he walked into a public roadway and was struck by a rapidly-moving motor vehicle.”

But The City counters that in no way was it responsible for actions hours after Lawman's release from custody or for a failure to diagnose him when in custody.

The City Attorney's Office's legal reply to the suit states that the Police Department is not “liable for injuries he sustained as a result of being hit by a motor vehicle while he was walking in lanes of traffic on Interstate 80, over 20 hours after being released from the custody of the San Francisco Police Department.”

In fact, the demurer, as the legal reply is known, says that state law explicitly relinquishes the responsibility of government entities in such cases.

“Neither a public entity nor a public employee is liable for injury caused by the failure to make an arrest or by the failure to retain an arrested person in custody,” the demurer quoted from state law.

The filing goes on to say that The City is also not responsible for what is characterized as a failure to diagnose Lawman's mental illness at the time.

The Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail, says all patients are assessed by a Department of Public Health nurse before they are admitted to the jail. If acute medical care need is found, from a gunshot wound to a mental health breakdown, the patient must first go to San Francisco General Hospital for treatment.

The case is set for San Francisco Superior Court Feb. 17.

Bay Area NewsCrimeCrime & Courtsmental healthSan Francisco JailSan Francisco Police

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