County pays $1 million to settle claims in 2013 injury of Fern Ornelas; Elliot Hospital settles for undisclosed sum

Mark Hayward, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·3 min read

Feb. 23—Hillsborough County, which operates the Valley Street jail in Manchester, has agreed to pay $1 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Fern Ornelas, who was rendered paralyzed in 2013 from injuries sustained at the jail or at Elliot Hospital and who died six years later.

Elliot Hospital also reached a settlement in the case, but a spokeswoman would say only that it has been resolved.

The settlement ends six years of litigation that took a decided turn in favor of Ornelas last summer when a U.S. District Court judge rejected legal challenges by the county and hospital, setting the stage for a possible trial.

Ornelas, who was well-liked in Manchester golfing circles, ended up paralyzed during a 38-hour odyssey in October 2013, when he was admitted to Elliot Hospital exhibiting signs of a bipolar disorder episode and fought with a security guard. He was arrested and incarcerated at the Valley Street jail, where correction officers forcibly removed him from his cell and strapped him into a restraint chair.

Medical experts never have been able to determine when the paralysis occurred, meaning that had the case gone to trial, a jury would have been tasked with apportioning blame if they found both the hospital and the jail liable for the injuries.

Lawyers with the Boston firm of Schwartz & Schwartz represented Ornelas, who was 54 when injured. They filed a $25 million lawsuit on his behalf in 2014. He died in 2019 following complications from surgery. His twin sister took over his role in the suit.

His lead attorney, David Angueira, was in depositions and unavailable for comment Tuesday, his office said. Co-counsel Ross Greenstein said the firm was preparing a statement.

Hillsborough County officials provided the Union Leader with a settlement agreement. It notes that the Ornelas estate has dismissed all claims against the county and individual employees. The county's insurer, Primex, will pay $1 million as a full and final settlement.

The county denies any liability.

"The purpose of this agreement is to buy peace and end six years of protracted litigation in the matter," the agreement reads.

It includes standard language that all other terms are confidential and the parties are not to discuss the underlying facts and circumstances of the agreement.

The ordeal highlighted two long-outstanding issues in New Hampshire: warehousing mentally ill people in hospital emergency rooms, and medical treatment at the Valley Street jail.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Toni Pappas said she could say only that the matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.

She would not discuss what has changed at the jail since 2013.

"I'm not sure how to answer that. I'm sorry," she said. "I'd rather not comment today."

However, much has happened at the jail since then. The jail's contract physician lost his medical license because of mishandled cases there, and the jail contracted with a physician firm used by several other New Hampshire counties. This year, state officials took an aggressive attitude toward health care at the jail when half the population contracted COVID-19.

Also, the superintendent at the time, David Dionne, retired.

Likewise, Elliot Hospital spokeswoman Dawn Fernald would not discuss what has changed at the hospital since 2013.

The agreement does allow Schwartz & Schwartz to submit the settlement for publication in legal journals as long as the parties, counsel and docket numbers are removed.

Anna Silva, Ornelas' twin sister, signed the agreement with Hillsborough County on Jan. 6. Jail Superintendent Willie Scurry signed it Jan. 14.