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Jail Suicides

Minnesota Civil Rights Lawyer Representing Families of Inmates in Jail Suicides

Jail inmates and prisoners have civil rights, including the right to certain health care and adequate medical treatment. When a person in jail or prison suffers from mental health issues and adequate medical treatment is negligently or intentionally withheld, or when a prison guard treats an inmate with deliberate indifference to that inmate’s medical condition and the inmate commits suicide, the prison guard, the facility, and other parties may be liable.

To be clear, an inmate of a jail or prison commits suicide, jail abuse or a violation of a prisoner’s rights may have been the underlying cause. In situations where guard brutality, or the deliberate indifference of the guards to an inmate’s mental health condition or physical well-being, resulted in an inmate’s suicide, it may be possible for the family member to file a lawsuit against the state or county where the suicide occurred. It is important to discuss the particular facts of your case with an experienced Minnesota prisoners’ rights attorney. One of the experienced advocates at Madia Law LLC can discuss your case with you today.

Increasing Incidents of Jail Suicides Across the United States

According to a recent article in The New York Times, suicide is the leading cause of death in jails, and it often occurs “due to staff shortages and inadequate training.” Indeed, “suicides in local jails are about 3.5 times more frequent than in the general population and 2.5 times more  than suicides in state prisons.”

Many jail or prison inmates are experiencing mental health crises similar to other Americans who are not serving out a term of imprisonment. Yet we do not often think about the mental health risks that affect inmates in jail and prisons in Minnesota and across the country. Much too often, disorders like anxiety and depression, as well as other serious mental health conditions, can lead to suicide attempts in a jail.

In addition to suffering from a mental health disorder or condition, issues like guard brutality can also contribute to an inmate’s psychological or emotional well-being, and ultimately can play a role in causing an inmate’s suicide attempt. The U.S. Department of Justice released a National Study of Jail Suicide that pointed to an increased rate of jail suicide attempts in the country.

Theories of Liability in Jail Suicide Cases: Negligence

Generally speaking, there are a variety of potential theories of liability that may apply to jail suicide cases. We want to tell you about a couple different theories of liability and how they might work in a jail suicide case. To be clear, any jail suicide lawsuit is a civil claim—and not a criminal claim—in which the family members of the deceased inmate are seeking to hold the county or state liable for the death of a loved one in jail or prison due to suicide.

One of the first theories of liability in a jail suicide case is wrongful death. Under the Minnesota wrongful death statute, when a person dies due to the “wrongful act or omission” of another person or entity, a representative party may be able to file a claim for financial compensation. In most wrongful death cases, the surviving spouse or children will be the party who files a claim, but the surviving parents, grandparents, or siblings of the deceased also may be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit. In situations where a family member of the deceased does not want to be the named party in a lawsuit, they can ask the court to appoint a trustee to file the claim. Wrongful death lawsuits are brought under a theory of negligence, which means that the jail or prison was negligent in its care or treatment of the inmate.

What constitutes negligence in a jail or prison? In general, inmates or prisoners still have certain rights, including the right to adequate healthcare and medical treatment. In situations where a jail or prison negligently fails to provide adequate mental health care and the inmate commits suicide, the family of the deceased inmate may be able to file a negligent claim. In other cases, an inadequate healthcare or medical care claim will result in an intentional tort case.

Intentional Harm and Deliberate Indifference to Medical Needs in a Jail Suicide Case

Intentional torts are those in which the defendant (or defendants) engaged in intentionally harmful behavior with the aim of harming another party. In jail suicide cases, there are a couple of different common scenarios in which a family may be able to file an intentional tort claim. In some situations, guards or healthcare providers at a facility will intentionally withhold adequate medical treatment for a mental health condition from an inmate. In other situations, the family of a deceased inmate may be able to argue that employees of the facility engaged in “deliberate indifference” toward the inmate’s mental health conditions that ultimately led to the suicide. And in yet other situations still, guard brutality aimed at provoking the inmate’s suicide attempt may be grounds for a lawsuit.

In certain situations, family members of deceased inmates have also brought claims under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, alleging that solitary confinement is “cruel and unusual punishment” that can lead to jail suicides.

Who is Liable in a Jail Suicide Case?

Many different parties may bear some responsibility in a jail suicide case, depending upon the specific circumstances. Example of parties that may be responsible in a jail suicide lawsuit include but are not limited to the following:

  • Jail or prison facility;
  • County or state responsible for running the jail or facility;
  • Jail or prison guard;
  • Jail or prison warden, or party responsible for overseeing the management of the facility; and/or
  • Healthcare provider in the jail or prison.

In some jail suicide cases, it may be possible to file a lawsuit that names multiple defendants. In such cases, responsibility can be apportioned between or among the defendants, and each may be responsible for paying damages in a settlement or verdict. In other cases, a plaintiff may file a lawsuit against only one party, such as the county where the jail suicide occurred.

Examples of Recent Jail Suicide Verdicts and Settlements in Minnesota

In recent years, families in Minnesota and across the country have filed claims for jail suicides involving the death of a family member and have won settlements or verdicts in those cases. The following are some examples of recent jail suicide claims that led to claims filed by family members:

  • In June 2017, a mentally ill inmate in a Todd County jail in Minnesota committed suicide. His family filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging that the “jailers repeatedly ignored signs” that the inmate was suicidal, according to an ABC News report. Todd County agreed to a $1.8 million settlement in December 2018.
  • In 2014, a jail suicide lawsuit involving an inmate in Koochiching County, MN was settled for $2 million. The family alleged that the sheriff, the jail staff, and the county had shown deliberate indifference for the inmate’s mental health, and the inmate was later found hanging in a doorway in the jail.
  • A recent case in May 2020 involves a Kansas inmate who hanged herself in a jail cell. According to an article in The New York Times, the jail failed to properly screen the woman for suicide risk, to do adequate cell checks, and to properly train employees.

Statute of Limitations in a Minnesota Jail Suicide Case

You may be wondering how much time you have to file a jail suicide case. If you are discussing the issue with your other family members, it is essential to learn more about statutes of limitations and how they could impact your case.

Every type of civil lawsuit, including jail suicide claims, comes with its own statute of limitations. The statute of limitations sets forth a specific time window in which a plaintiff can file a lawsuit. If the plaintiff fails to file a claim within that period of time, the lawsuit will become “time-barred.” Once a claim has become time-barred, or barred by the running out of the statute of limitations, the plaintiff cannot file a claim for compensation. Accordingly, it is extremely important to ensure that you get started on your case as soon as possible.

The statute of limitations for a jail suicide case may vary depending upon the legal theory under which you are filing a claim and who you are naming as a defendant. In Minnesota, as in other states, filing a claim against a local or state government, for example, typically will have a shorter statute of limitations than a claim filed against a private party. Generally speaking, however, a jail suicide lawsuit will have a three-year statute of limitations under Minnesota wrongful death law, and six year statute of limitations for the deliberate indifference constitutional claim. Other types of claims may have a different time window that you should discuss with your attorney.

Contact a Minnesota Prisoners Rights Lawyer for Assistance

If you recently lost a loved one to a jail suicide, we know how difficult the days, weeks, and months that follow can be. Yet we also know how important it is to hold the jail or prison, or the employees of the jail or prison, accountable for your loved one’s death. There are a variety of legal theories under which you may be able to bring a lawsuit, and it is essential to speak with an experienced Minnesota jail suicides attorney as soon as possible about your claim.

Do not hesitate to get in touch with one of the prisoners rights lawyers at our firm. We have years of experience representing clients and their families in civil rights and police brutality cases, and we can assist with your prisoners’ rights claim. Contact Madia Law LLC to learn more about the services we provide to clients and their families in Minnesota.

THE MADIA LAW WAY

We have a process that works in getting exceptional results for our clients. 

We are trial lawyers who prepare every case for trial from Day 1. Investigation and legal research are the first things we do, and we spend a lot of time on them. Because we haven’t filed the case yet, we have complete control – the defendant has no say and we want to use this time wisely.  We interview witnesses that can help us prove the case.  We’ll ask you for all relevant documents in your possession and review those carefully as well.  We also will spend some time conducting legal research about unique issues in the case.  We pull the jury instructions that the judge will ultimately charge the jury with after closing arguments at trial. 

Our next step is typically to send a demand letter to the defendant. In the letter, we thoroughly lay out: the facts surrounding the defendant’s misconduct; the applicable law (including statutory and case citations) that make clear that the defendant broke the law; an analysis of your damages and the defendant’s monetary exposure; a demand for a monetary amount to settle the claim; and an instruction to preserve all relevant evidence, including electronic evidence. The point of this letter is to give the defendant a chance to do the right thing and pay a fair amount before litigation, and to give the defendant an opportunity to present any defenses or evidence it wants us to consider before moving forward.  Sometimes we skip the demand letter if there are strategic reasons to move straight to filing, but we typically give defendants a chance to do the right thing.

If early negotiations fail, great – we file a Complaint and serve the defendant with it. A Complaint is a legal document that states the facts of what happened and alleges how the defendant broke the law. It formally starts the lawsuit.  Many lawyers draft complaints in a general and relatively vague way, just to get it done and filed – because that’s all that’s really required.  We take a different view. We view the Complaint as our first chance to tell your story to the judge, and we take it seriously. So we draft detailed complaints and include legal citations to statutory and judicial authority on unique points.  Sometimes we’ll include a number of exhibits, diagrams, or other demonstrative aids to help the Court understand our claims.  A secondary benefit of this approach is that defense lawyers reading the Complaint can become educated on the problems of their case and the state of the law – sometimes this leads them to reach out to us shortly after service of the Complaint to re-initiate settlement negotiations.  Of course, by that time, the price for settlement has gone up.

Some lawyers view written discovery as a necessary evil – something to get done and out of the way before depositions.  Not us.  Written discovery is a gift and an opportunity.  We spend a great deal of time crafting requests for documents and interrogatories (questions for the defendant to answer in writing) that are specific, detailed, and tailored to get what we need to prove our case.  Many lawyers – even great ones – think written discovery is a waste of time because defense lawyers typically answer them on behalf of their clients and can try to stonewall with legalese and objections.  We view this as a wonderful opportunity.  In our experience, most defense lawyers can’t help themselves when answering discovery: they over-state their defenses and make assertions that their clients will not be able to support in testimony. So we get to commit the defendant to defenses that they can’t back up, leading to contradictions, confusion, and chaos in their depositions later on.  We also use Requests for Admission – which many lawyers don’t.  The Federal Rules and Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure allow us to ask defendants to “admit” certain facts.  We send them RFAs that are very difficult for them to deny.  Of course, they do it anyway, but that sets them up later for cost and fee-shifting, which the Rules mandate for defendants that deny RFAs that are later proven true.  And usually, we can get the defendants’ own witnesses to admit facts that their defense lawyers denied in RFA.  That’s a great situation that leads to more chaos and confusion on the defense side.

One last point on written discovery – we send multiple waves of it throughout discovery.  We typically send 3 or 4 sets of written discovery requests to defendants throughout discovery.  This compounds the problems for them, because the defense lawyers continue to overstate their defenses, but now run into contradictions from not just the defendant witnesses’ deposition testimony, but also their own previous discovery responses.  This makes for a great record that we can present to the judge at dispositive motions, and use for impeachment at trial.

This is our chance to question relevant witnesses, on the record with a court reporter (we typically videotape important depositions as well). We get to confront the defense witnesses with all of the evidence we’ve developed through written discovery and document production. By this time, the defendant put its witnesses in an impossible position through its written defenses, which are often untrue and indefensible.  So the witness has to either lie to support the defense, or admit it’s not true.  That’s a dilemma that works for our clients either way, no matter which option the witness takes.  We use depositions to expose contradictions, create a record for dispositive motions, lock witnesses into their stories so that we can impeach them later at trial, and sometimes, to show defense lawyers how hopeless their case is.  We often calls from defense counsel shortly after depositions of their clients, seeking to re-start settlement negotiations.

The defendant will usually make a motion for summary judgment after discovery, asking the Court to throw out the case without having a jury trial. Because we’ve hit discovery so hard – both through written discovery and depositions – this is a tough motion for defense counsel to write in our cases.  We draft our response for the Court and now get to bring everything together: the admissions, contradictions, nonsense, and obvious fact disputes that we’ve uncovered through discovery.  We tell a compelling story that wraps everything together for the Court and makes clear that the defense motion has to be denied, and the defendant needs to face a jury for its conduct.

Sometimes, we’ll even make an affirmative motion for summary judgment, asking the Court to grant judgment in favor of our client without a trial. These motions are generally rare for plaintiffs to make, because the defendant can usually point to some fact dispute on its intent or some other factor that necessitates a trial. But we make affirmative summary judgment motions significantly more than is typical for plaintiffs, and that’s because the work we put in during discovery helps build a fantastic record to do so.

After the Court denies the defense motion for summary judgment, the defendant has only 2 options: 1) do the right thing and pay you a fair amount to our client to settle your claim (usually much, much more at this point than the defendant could have paid at the beginning of the case to settle); or 2) face a jury for its conduct and risk an enormous verdict. This is the dilemma that we have been creating and forcing the defendant into for the entire case. We’ll engage in settlement negotiations at this point from a position of extreme strength, mainly because most defendants are (rightly) terrified of facing a jury to defend their conduct.

This is, candidly, our favorite part of the case – why we went to law school: to hold the powerful accountable before juries.  We prepare heavily for trial, including: detailed witness preparation, focus groups, and mock trials.  At this point, the potential outcomes and consequences for the defendant are much more severe than if it simply did the right thing at the beginning of the case and paid a fair amount to compensate our client for its misconduct.  As we advocate to the jury for our client, we’re also mindful of protecting the record so that defendants will be unsuccessful in attacking the verdict in post-trial motions or appeal.

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