(CN) – Police in Reno, Nev., can be held liable for failing to report the suicidal behavior of a woman who wrapped a seatbelt around her neck in a squad car and screamed that officers should kill her or she would kill herself, the 9th Circuit ruled.
“This story has no happy ending, and it was unhappy long before the events in question transpired,” Judge Reinhardt wrote for the three-judge panel.
Years before she committed suicide in the Washoe County Jail, Brenda Clustka struggled with alcoholism and suicidal ideation.
“The longevity of her struggle and the persistence of her problems, however, do not absolve the defendants if they were deliberately indifferent to her serious medical need and as a result played a causal role in her death,” Reinhardt wrote.
Clustka’s children sued the city of Reno and Officers Ryan Ashton and David Robertson, claiming their mother died because the two officers ignored their mother’s cry for help while she was being transported to protective custody.
The officers found Clustka drunk and passed out on a sidewalk, so they took her into protective custody. In the back of the police car, she tried to choke herself with her seatbelt and threatened suicide.
She was released a few hours later, only to be detained the next day on a misdemeanor charge. Less than 48 hours after the suicide threats, she hanged herself in the Washoe County Jail.
Her children, Charla and Dustin Conn, blamed the officers for failing to report their mother’s threat or take her to a hospital. They said the city was liable because it hadn’t properly trained its officers on suicide prevention and reporting.
The defendants argued that, given Clustka’s history, she might’ve killed herself even if they had reported the choking incident and suicide threat.
Even so, the court reasoned, it doesn’t excuse their failure to act.
“It makes little sense … to argue that the failure to provide access to suicide prevention services has no causal effect on a suicide that transpires less than 48 hours earlier,” Reinhardt wrote.
The court reversed summary judgment for the defendants and remanded.