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Indiana to pay $124K to settle sign language suit

July 22, 2015

Indiana has agreed to pay $124,500 to settle a federal lawsuit a deaf man filed after being denied a sign-language interpreter so he could follow court hearings in which his mother was a party.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller's office said Wednesday the settlement would be paid out of the state's Tort Claim Fund and that it "is in the best interest of our clients and taxpayers, and satisfactorily resolves this case."

Steven Prakel and his mother sued the state, three judges in southeastern Indiana's Dearborn County and others in 2012, alleging violations of federal disability laws. The suit said Prakel was denied access to a sign-language interpreter in 2010 and 2011 during a probation revocation hearing and related hearings in Dearborn County's courts for his mother.

Carolyn Prakel had earlier pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated causing serious bodily injury, but was later arrested for driving with a suspended license, a probation violation.

The Prakels' suit said she had wanted her son to attend the court hearings "both to provide emotional support and to better understand the legal situation she was facing."

Court officials had maintained that Prakel would have to pay for his own interpreter and that he wasn't entitled to an interpreter because he wasn't a party to proceedings and wasn't involved as a participant.

Prakel's mother eventually paid for the cost of an interpreter for her son at subsequent hearings and she sought reimbursement of those expenses as part of their suit.

"All I wanted to do was to understand what was being said in court," Steven Prakel said in a statement earlier this week on the settlement. "Courts need to be accessible when a deaf person attends a court hearing."

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker ruled partially in the Prakels' favor in March, finding that the defendants had denied Steven Prakel "effective communication and the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the state courts' services, programs, and activities."

But Barker also dismissed the claims against the state and others but permitted the damages claims to proceed against the three Dearborn County judges. The parties agreed to the settlement with no admission of liability by the judges.

Under the terms of the $124,500 settlement, the Prakels' attorneys will receive $104,500 and the mother and son will get $10,000 each.

Zoeller's office said the Dearborn Circuit Court had previously provided Steven Prakel with a sign-language interpreter "at taxpayer expense when he was a witness in a criminal case."

"The issue here was whether he was entitled to an interpreter at taxpayer expense when he was a criminal courtroom spectator, not a litigant or witness. The settlement ends this matter without need for further litigation," Zoeller's office said in a statement.

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