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Police Only Responsible If They Know Danger Of Jail Suicide

On July 27, 1982, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that city police officers could only be held responsible for the suicide of a jail prisoner if they knew or reasonably should have known he was suicidal.

Joseph Fitzgibbons was arrested for public lewdness and placed in the Salem, Massachusetts, city jail. He phoned his sister, who visited him and began bail arrangements. At the visit she noticed he was wearing a belt. About an hour after the visit, he was found hanging by the belt in his cell. He died. The sister, as administrator of his estate, sued the city in state court pursuant to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, Gen. Laws ch. 258. The Superior Court granted the city's motion for summary judgment after the city provided affidavits from the police officers involved in the incident that stated they did not know the brother was a suicide risk. The sister had provided no affidavits, but relied on her pleadings. The sister appealed.

The Supreme Judicial Court held that the sister "did not proffer the required facts to support her assertion that the police knew, or had reason to know, that the deceased was suicidal." Since a plaintiff in a prisoner suicide case must prove that the persons responsible for the prisoner knew or should have known that he was a suicide risk to avoid summary judgment, the plaintiff failed in her burden of proof and summary judgment for defendants was appropriate. It did not matter that the affidavits were from the police officers who were interested parties.
Plaintiff had no right to cross-examine the police officer witnesses
prior to presenting summary judgment proof. The court upheld the lower court's judgment. See: Slaven v. City of Salem, 386 Mass. 885; 438 N.E.2d 348 (1982)

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Related legal case

Slaven v. City of Salem