TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The family of a 14-year-old boy who died hours after being manhandled by guards at a juvenile boot camp sued two agencies Wednesday, seeking more than $40 million in damages.
Ben Crump, who represents the family of Martin Lee Anderson, filed the lawsuit against the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Bay County Sheriff's Office, which ran the camp under contract with the state.
Sheriff's officials rejected an offer to settle for its insurance policy limit of $3 million, Crump said.
The boy's January death led to protests in the Capitol and at Gov. Jeb Bush's office, the resignation of the head of the state's law enforcement agency, and a law to eliminate military-style boot camps. The teen died in Pensacola after his videotaped ordeal with guards in the Panama City boot camp.
"A video proves that as seven guards punished Martin by kicking, punching, kneeing, choking and slamming him while they jammed ammonia tablets up his nose and covered his mouth, a nurse watched him slip in and out of consciousness," Crump said at a news conference. "These heinous, malicious and torturous treatments led to his death."
Anthony Schembri, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice, said he could not comment on pending litigation. But he added: "Our thoughts and prayers remain with the family of Martin Lee Anderson."
Sheriff Frank McKeithen said no settlement has been reached because the investigation is still pending. A special prosecutor is still trying to determine whether to charge any of the guards.
Crump said he based the $40 million figure largely on a similar Texas case in which a jury in 2003 awarded a family $40.1 million after an 18-year-old died after two months in a boot camp. The teen had been forced to complete intense physical programs despite his pleas for medical help.
The teen in the current case collapsed after an intense workout at the Florida camp, where he was sent for a probation violation for trespassing at a school. He and his cousins had been charged with stealing their grandmother's car from a church parking lot.
An initial autopsy found his death was caused by complications of a usually harmless blood disorder. His body was later exhumed and a second autopsy concluded he died of suffocation when guards covered his mouth while forcing ammonia capsules up his nose trying to revive him.
Waylon Graham, the attorney for Lt. Charles Helms, the highest-ranking officer who was on the exercise yard with the teen, questioned the family's motives in suing.
"None of these officers set out to harm this young man in any way," Graham said. "I think this has turned into a game of money."