Originally created 11/17/99

Man claims free speech right was violated in suit

An Aiken County man has filed a $9 million federal lawsuit against the sheriff's office, Tenneco Packaging Inc. and two hospital workers, claiming the defendants conspired to have him involuntarily committed to a mental facility after he made pro-union statements at work.

Gary McClain, a Jackson resident and employee of Tenneco Packaging, alleges the Beech Island plant violated his First Amendment rights and the Aiken County Sheriff's Office conducted a false arrest.

He accuses a doctor and nurse at Aiken Regional Medical Centers of professional negligence in drugging him and committing him to a mental hospital for two weeks without proper cause.

The allegations will be the subject of an upcoming report on ABC's 20/20, which could air as early as next month.

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 10 in U.S. District Court in Aiken, names Tenneco Packaging Inc., Sheriff Howard Sellers, Deputy Tim Randall, Maj. Jody Rowland, Aiken Regional nurse Dawn Price and Dr. Martin James as defendants.

The 22-page document, authored by Columbia attorney J. Dennis Bolt, spells out alleged events that led up to Mr. McClain's commitment July 29 to Charter Rivers Hospital.

"Shortly after he made a remark at work which challenged the plant manager's views of a union organizing effort, plaintiff (Mr. McClain) was subjected to an illegal arrest and involuntary mental commitment," the lawsuit says. "An official of Tenneco called the county sheriff and reported the remarks to the sheriff.

"As a result of this call, the sheriff sent a great number of deputies to intercept plaintiff on his way to work (during a traffic stop) and arrest him at gunpoint."

The sheriff's office does not comment on pending lawsuits, but Sheriff Sellers and Maj. Rowland previously have defended their involvement.

Sheriff Sellers said Tenneco officials complained to his agency that employees were afraid of Mr. McClain, who has worked at the plant for 17 years. Public safety then became the first priority, he said.

The sheriff's office found a 4-year-old misdemeanor warrant on Mr. McClain and used that as a basis to stop and arrest him. During the traffic stop, deputies did not serve the warrant but took him to Aiken Regional, saying they believed Mr. McClain "appeared to be confused and disoriented."

The lawsuit claims that a New York physician hired by Tenneco conspired to have Mr. McClain involuntarily committed because he was fighting for a unionized plant.

The lawsuit states that Tenneco physician Dr. J.B. Burley called Mr. McClain's former physician, Dr. David Steiner of Aiken, and asked him how to have Mr. McClain involuntarily committed under South Carolina law. The Tenneco physician then told Dr. Stein that Mr. McClain was "stirring up union support at the Tenneco Packaging plant."

Dr. Burley, the suit contends, called Sheriff Sellers to complain about Mr. McClain.

After taking him to the hospital, deputies told the nurse and doctor that Mr. McClain was mentally ill and "likely to cause serious harm to self or others if not immediately hospitalized." In committing him, hospital officials concluded that "patient has a history of paranoid and violent threatening behavior. Patient refuses to take medicine as described."

The lawsuit contends that Dr. James merely parroted remarks from law enforcement agents that were recitations made to them by agents for Tenneco.

The suit seeks $6 million for actual damages and $3 million for punitive damages. A lawsuit represents only one point of view.

Company spokesman Warren Hazelton, who declined to discuss the lawsuit, said Mr. McClain won't be allowed to return to work until he has undergone an examination by a company physician. Mr. McClain has refused to undergo the exam. Telephone messages left for Dr. James and Ms. Price at the hospital were not returned Tuesday.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.


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