Jail Suicide

One of two brothers in a small town threatened his family he was going to leave the house, to a nearby cemetery and slit his wrists. He had attempted suicide in a similar manner once before. His psychologist told the family if he tried this again, to immediately call the police.

His younger brother tackled him to prevent him from leaving the home and his mother called the police. Shortly thereafter, his fiancé came to the house.

When the police arrived, although the older brother was now calm and sitting on the lawn in front of his parents' house with his fiancé, instead of acting to protect him, the police arrested the two brothers in a rough manner, charging them with disorderly conduct and throwing them into two separate cruisers. This happened despite the parents' pleas to bring their older son to the hospital.

The older brother was now agitated and upset and frightened again, as he was transported to a holding cell across from his younger brother.

The parents arrived at the police station where the holding cell was located. They continued to plead with the police to bring their older son to the hospital. Eventually, the police informed his parents that they were taking him to the hospital. Ironically and tragically, what they failed to tell the parents was they were doing so because he had just attempted suicide and he was no longer breathing.

Unfortunately, although the cell was visually monitored, the older son hung himself using his shirt, in full view of the younger son. The younger son, who idolized his older brother, watched in horror. He screamed for help.

In a couple of minutes, two police officers entered the cell area and cut the older son down and removed his shirt. He was still breathing. They went back upstairs.

Shortly thereafter, he hung himself again, this time with one of his socks. When the police found him, he was unconscious and he had turned blue.

His brother was once again in a state of disbelief and panic.

The ambulance, which was now called, was out of radio contact at a Dunkin Donuts.

It eventually arrived at the police station, thirty two minutes after the police made the call.

The older brother, who was then transported to the hospital by ambulance, was pronounced dead on the hospital steps.

Attorney Jaffe was able to successfully mediate this tragic case after bringing suit against the local police and the ambulance company.

He took many depositions and utilized internationally prominent experts in the fields of police procedure, jail suicide and emergency medical assistance. He was able to prove that although the older brother exhibited classic "red flags" of jail suicide, the police failed to recognize them; that the police rendered inadequate medical assistance and that they did not properly monitor his cell. Also, the ambulance personnel were shown to have acted with a lack of due care, as well.

If such deliberate indifference on the part of the police and/or lack of due care by the ambulance personnel had not occurred, the older brother would likely still be alive.

Shortly after this case was resolved, the local police station was modernized and jail suicide prevention procedures were upgraded. Thus, in addition to obtaining a modicum of justice for his clients, Attorney Jaffe was also effective in seeing to it that there were no more jail suicide attempts in the holding cells of this town.


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 [1] 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, [2] 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, [3] 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.


[1] Miga v. City of Holyoke, 398 Mass. 343, 497 N.E.2d 1, 6 (1986).

[2] Hake v. Manchester Township, 98 N.J. 302, 486 A.2d 836 (1985).

[3] Gordon v. City of New York, 120 A.D.2d 562, 502 N.Y.S.2d 215, 216 (1986).

Disclaimer : Every case is different to facts and circumstances and results will vary from one case to another. The announcement of the results of any one particular case should not be taken as to imply, or guarantee, certain results in any other case.