Lawsuit: Woman who drowned while locked in sheriff’s van was treated like a criminal, not a mental health patient

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HORRY CO, SC (WBTW) – The family of one of two women who drowned in floodwaters while locked in a sheriff’s van has filed a lawsuit.

Wendy Newton’s family is seeking an unspecified amount of money in a suit that alleges wrongful death by driving her in a locked cage on a dangerous road into standing water, failing to follow the correct route, and for using the caged inmate van for a mental health patient, among other actions. The suit was filed on Monday by the Brittain Law Firm on behalf of Sarah Shoun and Allison Newton, representatives of Newton’s estate.

Wendy Newton died along with Nicolette Green on Sept. 18 when the sheriff’s van in which officers were transporting them was swept away by Hurricane Florence floodwaters on Hwy. 76 just outside of Nichols. The van filled with water and took the lives of the women, while the two ex-officers escaped.

Both women were being transported to healthcare facilities to take their medication. Newton has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Despite that, the family says in the suit, Newton was able to care for and raise three children, controlling her periods of illness with treatment and prescribed medication.

As the threat of Hurricane Florence grew, Newton became anxious, the suit states. “During her time of anxiety, she saw a scene from a movie that triggered her schizophrenia.” Having suffered through these fears before, Newton and her family arranged for transport through Chadbourne Police Department to McLeod Loris Hospital. The doctors there sedated Newton and requested her transport to Rebound Behavioral Health.

Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop, the two ex-officers transporting the women, have been charged with manslaughter in the case. The lawsuit is against the two ex-officers, Horry County, the Horry County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Phillip Thompson, and Elizabeth Orlando, HCSO Sergeant in charge of transportation.

According to the lawsuit, mental health patients are transported and treated the same as criminals. In this instance, the metal grate that separated the caged compartments in the van was locked the defendants didn’t have a key to the door.

“The vehicle was a death trap,” the lawsuit states. “The two innocent, non-criminal, non-violent women were locked in the cage with no windows, internal operating doors, or functioning escape mechanism.”

Other allegations include:

  • Defendants falsely imprisoned Newton and negligently caused her conscious pain and suffering and to die by drowning.
  •  Defendants have ignored duties to those suffering from mental illness and perpetuated an archaic custom of portable, illegal and unconstitutional incarceration of them.
  • The transport of mental health patients – non-suspect, non-criminal and non-violent persons – from one health facility to another in prisoner convict vans and under prisoner convict conditions, including being restrained and/or locked inside the van without freedom…occurs without any legal process to the mental health patients.
  • Defendants intentionally placed Newton in the small, caged compartment rather than the larger cage compartment, which they managed to open during the flood.

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