Jail Suicide Attempt May Leave Guards Liable
BOSTON (CN) - A jury may find that two jailers were deliberately indifferent to a detainee who tried to hang himself after making repeated suicide threats, the 1st Circuit ruled.
The decision published Friday describes the chain of events in a light most favorable to the detainee, Matthew Lalli, who is suing Knox County, Maine, and various officials through his guardian, Cathy Penn.
Lalli had been in Knox County Jail for a few days by the time of his Oct. 5, 2009, arraignment on charges of intoxication and assault in violation of the terms of his release.
Correction officer Dane Winslow had put Lalli on welfare watch because he told the booking officer at intake that he "(1) lost two close friends to suicide, (2) attempted suicide himself two years prior, and (3) when asked whether he then felt like killing himself responded "not sure, feels that ... life is over."
The welfare-watch designation meant that staff had to make separate log entries regarding the detainee's condition when they made 15-minute checks of his cell.
Winslow nevertheless had not put Lalli in the suicide-prevention cell that the jail had available, and Lalli wound up fashioning a noose out of the sheets and bedding in his more secluded cell.
In the hours before he tried to kill himself on Oct. 5, Lalli repeatedly threatened his own life and cried in court when the judge denied him bail.
Correction officer Angela Escorsio made some moves to have Lalli put in the suicide-prevention cell after his arraignment, but she allegedly did not take any precautions while the cell was prepared for him. Such precautions could have included taking away the bedding from Lalli's cell or putting him in a suicide smock.
An officer found Lalli's hanging body during a welfare-watch check, but doctors in Bangor found that the suicide attempt had left him with an anoxic brain injury.
A federal judge denied Winslow and Escorsio immunity from Penn's deliberate indifference claims, and a three-member panel with the 1st Circuit affirmed last week.
"In sum, defendants concede that clearly established law dictated they take some action to abate a known risk, whereas the district court found a jury could conclude defendants took effectively no action to abate a known risk," Senior Judge Bobby Baldock, sitting on the panel by designation from the 10th Circuit, wrote for the court. "As such, on the purely legal question of qualified immunity here, we affirm."
The 22-page decision closes with a caveat.
"This opinion should not be construed as holding defendants are totally ineligible for qualified immunity," Baldock wrote. "Depending on what defendants can prove at trial, they may indeed be entitled to raise qualified immunity as an affirmative defense. Rather, we simply hold that, on the clearly established law conceded by defendants themselves and the reasonable pro-plaintiff inferences drawn by the District Court below, defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity at the summary judgment phase."