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

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at

Just Posted

Giants second baseman Donovan Solano scores on a double in the seventh inning against the Dodgers at Oracle Park on July 29. (Chris Victorio/Special to The Examiner)
Will the Giants make the playoffs? Kris Bryant may be the answer

By Chris Haft Special to The Examiner You’d be hard-pressed to find… Continue reading

Tiffany Carter, owner of Boug Cali West Coast Creole Shack in San Francisco’s La Cocina Marketplace, was dismayed by gentrification she found when she returned to her hometown to start a business. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
SF Black Wallstreet: Helping residents build wealth, reclaim spaces they’ve had to leave

Tiffany Carter moved back to her hometown of San Francisco five years… Continue reading

A prescribed fire at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks was conducted in June 2016 to reduce hazardous fuel loading, increase watershed health, and restore the natural fire cycle in the Redwood Canyon area ecosystem. (Photo courtesy Rebecca Paterson/National Park Service)
Experts, UC scientists discuss wildfires in the state’s riskiest regions

Wildfires are nothing new in California’s history, but the magnitude and frequencies… Continue reading

Fourth-grade students at Lucerne Valley Elementary School don masks and Western wear for a “Walk Through California” history day during in-person instruction. (Courtesy of Krystal Nelson)
Confusion over mask mandate for California schools sparks tension between districts and parents

By Diana Lambert EdSource Shifting rules around mask mandates at schools are… Continue reading

In his extensive filming of The City during the pandemic, Eric Goodfield said he has been “observing how the environment affects the behavior of people.” (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)
Filmmaker Eric Goodfield fixes lens on SF’s COVID days

140 days of shooting in The City made for ‘greatest adventure’

Most Read