RICHMOND – State Sen. Creigh Deeds may sue the government over his son's death, his attorney said Thursday.
Deeds, D-Bath, threatened lawsuits earlier this week, via formal notices to several local governments in his part of the state. Attorney Monica Mroz said Deeds hasn't decided whether he'll actually file suit, but he wants to preserve that right.
In a letter to the Rockbridge County attorney, Deeds' legal team accuses employees of the Rockbridge Area Community Services Board, the state-and-locally-funded mental health provider that handled aspects of the Deeds case, of "gross negligence." It says they're responsible for Austin "Gus" Deeds' death, and that the senator "intends to bring action" in the matter.
Mroz said the letter, and others sent to Bath County, Rockbridge County and the cities of Lexington and Buena Vista, are only formal notifications. State law requires notice of a potential lawsuit within six months of an incident, she said.
"The notices provided allow for a thoughtful and thorough review of this matter as well as the preservation of rights under Virginia law," she said in a statement. "Sen. Deeds provided these notices as part of his continued quest to understand what happened to his son."
Gus Deeds stabbed his father, then committed suicide last November, one day after authorities in Bath County released him from custody. The incident led to several changes in the law, including an increase in how long authorities can initially hold a person against his or her will.
An inspector general's report on the incident found a number of shortcomings in the lead up to Gus Deeds' death, including attempts to reach an area hospital that could have given him treatment and a bed that were foiled by an incorrect fax number.
Deeds' letter lays out many of the details from that inspector general's report, then places responsibility at the Rockbridge Area Community Service Board's feet. Attempts to reach the board's attorney Thursday, and attorneys for other government entities involved, were not successful.
An attempt to reach Dennis Cropper, executive director for Rockbridge Area Community Services, also wasn't successful. RACS Board Chairman David Cox said he was aware of the notice, but that he couldn't comment on it Thursday.
"I think it's premature for me to say anything," he said.
Deeds hasn't served any notice on the state, which sets down rules and provides funding for community service boards. The senator has another six months to decide whether to do that, Mroz said, because of a longer notice window for suits against the state.
These lawsuits aren't unheard of, according to Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board Executive Director Chuck Hall, whose group is not involved in the Deeds case.
Community service boards are an extension of government, and thus have some immunity from lawsuits, Hall said. But the Hampton-Newport News board keeps an attorney on retainer, Hall said, and has liability insurance.
"What we do is high risk," Hall said. "We have to take major steps to deal with our liability, so we do get sued."
The Deeds tragedy refocused attention on Virginia's mental health system, but past tragedies also led to calls for change, and problems remain, Hall said. Even with a strong emergency team in place and some changes approved this year by the General Assembly, something like the Deeds case "could happen here," he said.
"The demands on this system are so extreme that it could happen any day," Hall said.
Over the decades, lawsuits have been responsible for most of the major changes in the state's mental health system, Hall said. He wondered if Deeds' potential suit might do the same.
"I would say lawsuits now are probably the best way to get change in Virginia," Hall said. "Because we have 50 years of enlightened public policy development that hasn't made much difference."
An attempt to reach Deeds for comment through his legislative office Thursday was not successful.
Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.