SAN DIEGO (CN) – San Diego County, which sees the most in-custody suicides in California, can’t dodge wrongful death claims filed by the family of a man diagnosed with schizophrenia who hanged himself while in custody, a federal judge ruled this week.
U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez denied the county’s motion to dismiss the wrongful death case filed by Jason Nishimoto’s mother Rochelle Nishimoto last August over her son’s in-custody death – which the mother says she tried to prevent.
At the heart of Nishimoto’s case against the county is her claim that Sheriff’s Department staff violated her son’s Fourteenth Amendment right to adequate medical care by failing to train jail employees in identifying and treating suicidal inmates.
Nishimoto’s attorney, Danielle Pena with the Morris Law Firm in San Diego, said in a phone interview that the county has not made any substantive policy changes in its jails in years. But she believes Nishimoto’s case and others like it need to go to trial to “show jurors what’s going on in their county.”
“When jurors hit the county with a sizable juror award, taxpayers don’t like that, the Board of Supervisors doesn’t like that,” Pena said, referencing the local government agency that oversees the budget of the Sheriff’s Department.
Jason Nishimoto was arrested and jailed in September 2015 after a physical fight with his brother Adrian, who tried to intervene when Jason overdosed on one of his medications in a suicide attempt, according to court documents, which also reveal that he had attempted to commit suicide multiple times in the months leading up to his arrest.
Although Adrian said he would not press charges, Jason was arrested for assault and booked at the Vista Detention Facility after spending an hour at a local hospital, according to Benitez’s summary of the case in his denial of the motion to dismiss.
The judge’s order goes on to relate how Rochelle Nishimoto informed the psychiatric nurse at the jail the following day – September 26, 2015 – about her son’s recent suicide attempts and his need to take anti-psychotic medications. But jail staff said her son’s medication was unlikely to be approved “because it was too expensive.”
Even though Nishimoto informed jail staff her son was suicidal, it did not hold him in an observation or safety cell that would have been monitored every half hour and that would not contain fixtures, bedding or clothing that inmates could use to harm themselves, according to her lawsuit.
Nishimoto says one day later, her son was found hanging from an air vent with a noose made from a bed sheet.
San Diego has received national attention for its high number of jail suicides, outpacing other major California counties like Los Angeles and San Francisco. The local Citizens Law Enforcement Review Board “has twice found that San Diego County Sheriff’s deputies violated policy and procedure in instances of inmate suicides,” Nishimoto says in her lawsuit.
A recent grand jury report also found the county lacks a clear policy and training program on suicide prevention despite having the highest inmate suicide rate in the state.
While Benitez previously found Nishimoto did not sufficiently show a pattern or practice of “deliberate indifference” by the county and its employees, he changed course in his June 20 order, noting that six additional suicide instances cited by Nishimoto in her amended complaint established a pattern.
The judge also rejected the county’s argument that Nishimoto would have to show a pattern of similar adjudicated claims that had gone through a jury trial to establish a pattern of constitutional violations by the county.
“The court remains unconvinced by defendant’s arguments as to this issue, and incorporates by reference its reasoning in its November 4, 2016 order finding plaintiff need not allege the existence of specific verdicts against defendant for constitutional violations in order to maintain her action,” Benitez wrote in his June 20 order.
Benitez additionally shot down the county’s contention that the suicide incidents cited by Nashimoto were not similar enough to establish a pattern of constitutional violations by jail staff. “Defendant’s position ignores the crux of plaintiff’s [first amended complaint], which is that there is a systemic deficiency in the manner in which the county addresses inmates exhibiting suicidal ideations, and this deficiency amounts to the adoption of a policy deliberately indifferent to inmates’ rights,” he wrote.
Pena said the county’s argument that wrongful death claims from suicides in its jails need to be adjudicated to show a pattern or practice of negligence has failed in other pending civil lawsuits she is representing.
Pena said she has filed five similar lawsuits against the county over jail deaths.
“We’ve had four orders in the past year and a half where the court says there is a pattern of apathy,” Pena said.
“At some point the county won’t be able to use this argument anymore,” she added. “They’re on notice and need to change their program and policies.”
She said the many wrongful death cases against the county for “preventable” suicides, including cases where deputies knew of previous suicide attempts or noted ligature marks on recently booked inmates should put the county on notice changes need to be made to the way deputies recognize and respond to inmates with suicidal tendencies.
But Pena posited meaningful changes won’t start until deputies undergo a “mindset” or “mentality” change.
“Guards need to be trained to know suicides aren’t OK,” she said.
County counsel does not comment on pending litigation.