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Case law: Jail staff liability for inmate suicide

The court determines if liability falls to jail staff members in a recent case involving an inmate suicide

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Officers must take suicide threats seriously and follow jail protocol for suicide watch and prescribed inmate checks.

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

This article was featured in Lexipol’s Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys. Subscribe here!

LAWLER V. HARDEMAN COUNTY, 2024 WL 656912 (6th Cir. 2024)

Brian Lawler was arrested for driving on a suspended license and being suspected of driving under the influence. When Lawler, also known as WWE wrestler Grand Master Sexay, was booked into the jail, he told deputies he took medication for a bipolar condition. Lawler also reported taking oxycodone and Xanax, and that he had experienced withdrawal symptoms in the past. He added he had once suffered a head injury that required hospitalization.

Additionally, Lawler reported a past suicide attempt, automatically placing him on a suicide watch status. When asked: “Are you currently thinking about suicide?” Lawler answered, “No.” When a jail sergeant learned the attempt had been at least 15 years in the past, she changed the intake form to state Lawler had not attempted suicide. Two days later, a jail nurse evaluated Lawler, who again denied any suicidal intent. The nurse also concluded he was not suicidal.

Several weeks later, Lawler sustained a cut over his eye from a fight with another prisoner. After a nurse treated his injury, she recommended Lawler be housed in an intake cell so jail staff could “watch him closer because of the laceration.” Lawler didn’t like the cell and banged on the door, demanding to be taken back to his pod. A jailer noted a substantial change in Lawler’s mood, but did not move Lawler as he demanded, nor did she try to calm him.

Approximately 15 minutes after the jailer checked on Lawler, another jail worker passed by Lawler’s cell. He saw Lawler in the corner with a towel over his head. The jailer had previously conversed with Lawler and thought Lawler was hiding in the corner of his cell with the towel over his face because he was embarrassed that he was “famous” and had a cut on his face.

After taking out the trash, the jailer stopped at Lawler’s cell and knocked on the door. Seeing that Lawler did not move, the jailer called for the jail door to be opened. Another jailer said Lawler was “probably faking” because “he’s a good actor.” When they opened the door and entered, the jailers saw Lawler had hanged himself with his shoelaces from the stub of a bolt embedded in the wall (inmates not on active suicide watch were permitted to keep their shoelaces). The jailers tried to revive Lawler. He died the following day at a local hospital.

Lawler’s father sued, claiming the jail staff was deliberately indifferent to the risk that Lawler would kill himself. The legal theory was based on the 14th Amendment right for an inmate not to be “deprived” of “life” without due process of law. The trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and the jail officers appealed.

The appellate court held the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because the plaintiff could not show they violated a clearly established constitutional right. To overcome qualified immunity, Lawler’s father had to show the jailers subjectively believed there was a strong likelihood his son would try to kill himself. The evidence showed the jail staff did not subjectively believe Lawler was suicidal.

In cases that followed the time of Lawler’s death, the court slightly changed course. Today, officers can face liability even if they did not actually know of a risk of harm to a pretrial detainee. The court noted, “Pretrial detainees need only prove that the officers recklessly disregarded a risk so obvious that they either knew or should have known of it.” That is a change from the standard of “consciously (not recklessly)” disregarding that risk. As these cases were decided after Lawler died, however, the more lenient standard applied to this case, resulting in the granting of qualified immunity.

Even with the stricter standards in place, these cases still pose high thresholds of proof for plaintiffs. A plaintiff cannot rely on evidence an officer knew of a “possibility” or “even a likelihood” of suicide. Rather, the court noted, “The officer must have believed that a strong likelihood existed that the inmate would commit suicide.”

Certainly, no officer wants to deal with a suicide in any custodial situation. Contemporary corrections policies prescribe mental health and medical screening upon intake. Officers must take suicide threats seriously and follow jail protocol for suicide watch and prescribed inmate checks.

Read more Ken Wallentine case reviews here.

Ken Wallentine is the chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former chief of law enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over three decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.