November 3, 2009
By: David K. Jaffe
Jailers may be held liable for suicides by prisoners if there was sufficient notice of the possibility of suicide, and inadequate preventive action was taken. Such notice may be furnished by a mental health professional's advice, by the arrestee's previously known conduct in threatening suicide or manifesting suicidal tendencies, or by warnings from the arrestee's family.
While most courts have not applied contributory negligence and assumption of risk concepts to suicide cases, there is a growing trend contra, at least where the suicide was unforeseeable.
Notice remains the gravamen of any duty. Thus, the court in Miga v. City of Holyoke found liability when the decedent was known to the police department prior to being stopped for drunken driving. Despite a desire to place her in protective custody, and a regulation forbidding placement of unconscious detainees in jail cells, the defendants made no effort to obtain an address or to call a detoxification center. Although she threatened suicide and other jailees called for help, there was no response.
Courts have also found that certain classes of arrestees are prone to suicide. Inebriated, teenage DWI arrestees are considered to be particularly at risk, especially if they exhibit bizarre, disoriented behavior. In White v. Town of Seekonkz, the existence of statistics alone precluded an award of summary judgment when 68.6% of jail suicides involved arrest for alcohol related crimes; intoxication was a factor in 73.6% of suicides; and more than 30% of the fifty-four suicides in state lock-ups between 1973 and 1984 were approximately the same age as the decedent. It should be noted that general statistics are disfavored in § 1983 causes of action, which require a showing of a strong likelihood of suicide based on the individual facts of a particular case.
Negligence is a predicate for liability in jail suicide cases. In Hake, the court found no duty to prevent a suicide by removing a juvenile detainee's belt during a short detention at a police station. His laces, outer shirt, and trousers had been removed when eleven minutes after placement into a cell he hung himself with a belt. The decedent had been issued a traffic summons and was awaiting the arrival of his father to take him home. Boisterousness during booking was not indicative of a suicidal tendency, and he had never previously threatened suicide.
In a New York case, the court found no negligence when a possible suicidee's belt and laces had been removed, he was constantly monitored, and there was nothing in the cell with which he could have hurt himself. Any duty of ordinary care did not require that he be taken immediately to a hospital instead of to a pre-arraignment holding pen.
 Miga v. City of Holyoke, 398 Mass. 343, 497 N.E.2d 1, 6 (1986).
 Hake v. Manchester Township, 98 N.J. 302, 486 A.2d 836 (1985).
 Gordon v. City of New York, 120 A.D.2d 562, 502 N.Y.S.2d 215, 216 (1986).