Federal judge splits ruling on jail suicide attempt case
Portland — A federal judge issued a split decision last week in U.S. District Court, granting and denying summary judgement requests from defendants in a case regarding a 2009 attempted suicide of a detainee at the Knox County Jail.
Cathy Penn, the mother of Matthew Lalli, a 26-year-old man who suffered a brain injury from an attempted suicide in 2009 while in custody at the Knox County Jail, said jail staff could have prevented his actions. In the lawsuit, filed in 2011, Penn asserted jail officials were deliberately indifferent to his risk of harming himself.
The lawsuit said projected cost of medical care for Lalli will be $9 million. The lawsuit seeks damages to cover the costs of care as well as unspecified punitive damages.
In the complaint, Penn lists Knox County, the Knox County Sheriff's Office, the Knox County Jail, Sheriff Donna Dennison, and jail employees Julie Stilkey, Angela Escorsio, Christopher Truppa, Robert Wood, Warren Heath IV, Bradley Woll, and Dane Winslow as defendants in the case.
Judge Nancy Torresen, dismissed claims against the county, the jail, the Knox County Sheriff's Office, Jail Administrator John Hinkley, Assistant Jail Administrator Kathy Carver, Dennison, and Stilkey, according to the judgement.
She denied summary judgement for the six other jail staff listed as defendants. The case is expected to continue.
Penn filed a freedom of access lawsuit in Knox County Superior Court to get information about previous suicide attempts at the jail.
Penn claims her son was arrested on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009, and taken to the jail. When he was given an initial assessment by the jail staff he told them he had tried to commit suicide two years earlier by driving his vehicle into a ledge at 70 miles per hour. He also told the intake officer that he had been at the Pen Bay Medical Center psychiatric center two weeks earlier and had considered suicide in the past week.
When asked if he was currently feeling like killing himself, the officer wrote he was "not sure, feels that life is over."
Lalli was placed on a welfare watch.
Another officer recorded in the jail records on Monday, Oct. 5 that Lalli said that if he is not allowed to be released to be with his daughter, of whom he had sole custody, "It would be better if he wasn't alive at all."
Lalli made statements about suicide when taken to the Knox County Courthouse for a bail hearing on the afternoon of Oct. 5.
The lawsuit claims that Sgt. Wood of the jail made a comment about having to go back to the jail and get out the "turtle suit" for Lalli, according to the lawsuit.
Lalli argued and pleaded with the judge to be released because he needed to care for his daughter. A corrections officer recorded that Lalli "got more agitated and said it would be all over anyway, that he would just end it."
Lalli was very agitated when a judge would not order his release. Upon returning to the jail, Lalli made similar comments about ending his life.
He was not placed in a suicide watch room, which is stripped of bedding that can be used to make a noose, said court documents.
The jail log showed that Lalli was returned to the jail at 2:35 p.m., put in a cell at 3 p.m. and was found hanging from a privacy partition at 3:29 p.m., the lawsuit states.
"As a result of Matthew's attempted suicide, he has suffered a permanent and severe brain injury requiring institutionalized care for the indeterminate future," the lawsuit stated.
Penn argues in the lawsuit that it was the custom, practice and policy of the county and sheriff to operate the jail without adequate mental health services and to operate the jail at overcapacity, preventing proper oversight of inmates at risk of suicide. The defendants failed to comply with state and county standards as required by law, the lawsuit alleges.
Although the jail admittedly has not kept up with its policy of providing annual suicide prevention training to its staff, all the defendants listed in the case have received training. The jail did not provide suicide prevention trainings for six years, from 1995 to 2001, but did have 18 trainings from Jan. 1989 to Oct. 2009. Torresen said although the record suggests some negligence on the municipal defendants, a rational jury could not conclude the actions were deliberately indifferent.
Their actions showed a deliberate indifference to Lalli's constitutional rights and to the substantial risk of his suicide, his mother claims in the lawsuit.
Lalli was being treated in 2010 at Lakeview Neurological Rehabilitation in Effingham, N.H.
Penn is represented by attorneys Ralph Lancaster, Daniel Stevens, and Avery Day of Pierce Atwood LLP of Augusta.
Knox County Attorney Peter Marchesi said in all likelihood, he will be filing an appeal on behalf of some of the corrections officers whose claims were denied. He said the case may not go to trial until late winter or early spring.
Marchesi said a final determination has not been made yet, and he will be consulting with his clients to determine which cases merit an appeal, which may be about half.
Courier Publications' reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
594-4401 ext. 118
Juliette primarily covers the cops and courts beat for The Courier-Gazette.
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