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In her first appearance arguing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Christine Stetson ’92 secured a major victory for her clients, who stand to receive $2.4 million in a prisoners’ rights case out of Orange County, Tx.
Stetson, an attorney with the Bernsen Law Firm in Texas, was fighting to restore $917,000 in wrongful death damages that were awarded by a trial court jury but struck down in a final judgment from the bench. On Nov. 29, the Fifth Circuit vacated the trial court judge’s decision while affirming two other components of the award: $1.5 million for pain damages and $440,000 in attorney fees.
The case, involving claims of wrongful death and unconstitutional conditions of confinement against Orange County, was originally brought to trial after the 2011 death of Robert Montano in county jail.
“The friendships I formed [at Albany Law] are precious to me and the education gave me all the requisite building blocks for success.”
In the trial, Stetson — representing the plaintiffs alongside colleagues David and Cade Bernsen — argued that Montano succumbed to renal failure because pursuant to the jail’s policy, he was left in his cell with no running water and no toilet, for days simply waiting for his condition to improve. The attorneys also said Montano was denied access to a physician, and the windows of his cell were obstructed from the outside so that jail personnel “wouldn’t have to look at him crawling on the floor in his own waste,”
according to Texas Lawyer.
“The Fifth Circuit, although very conservative, is not going to desert a jury verdict when it is so clear that the medical services provided at the Orange County jail were so vastly unconstitutional that death was inevitable,” Stetson told Texas Lawyer.
“Throughout the trial and throughout the appeal, the county focused on the fact that Robert was the only person to die. … But as we argued and the Fifth Circuit agreed, it's not the one death that was at issue, but the fact that its policy was unconstitutional,” she added.
Because of the ruling it is “highly likely” that Stetson’s clients will receive the full $2.4 million award, though the county can seek an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court,
Texas Lawyer reported.
A native of Pottersville, N.Y, Stetson graduated magna cum laude from Binghamton University in 1989 and cum laude from Albany Law School in 1992. She began her legal career as an associate at Bickel & Brewer in Dallas, Tx., where she later worked for Vial, Hamilton, Koch & Knox and Gardere & Wynne. She is currently a Jefferson County attorney with the Bernsen Law Firm in Beaumont, Tx., practicing in several areas including personal injury and civil rights. She also serves as an arbitrator for FINRA Dispute Resolution.
Commenting on her years at Albany Law School, Stetson said, “I absolutely loved it. I know that sounds crazy, given the amount of work law school involves. But the friendships I formed there are precious to me and the education gave me all the requisite building blocks for success.”