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Georgia Suicide Claim Reinstated Against PHS

The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a negligence claim against Prison Health Services, Inc. (PHS) stemming from a 17-year-old detainee’s suicide. The Court also concluded individual defendants were not entitled to official immunity, because they performed ministerial, rather than discretionary functions.

On November 10, 1996, 17-year-old Ronald Smith stole a car in South Carolina and drove it to Georgia, where he was arrested in Catham County. PHS contracted with the county to provide medical services, including medical screenings of new detainees, at the jail.

PHS Nurse Cornelius Jones performed Smith’s screening, including a mental health assessment. Jones concluded Smith needed to see a mental health counselor because he had been hospitalized for violent behavior within the last year, and had suicidal thoughts in the last three days. Jones completed a mental health referral form, but the booking sergeant, whom policy dictated was to receive the form, denied received the form or any other information about Smith’s mental state.

On November 11, 1996, Classification Officer Henry Mallory interviewed Smith and completed a classification profile, which did not reflect any mental health concerns. Mallory assigned Smith to general population but changed that to cell restriction or “lockdown”––continuous isolation––based upon erroneous information that another prisoner might harm Smith.

On November 13, 1996, Smith’s mother, Sharon Clark, called David Morgan, the mental health counselor on Smith’s unit. She left a message that she feared Smith would hurt himself. Morgan did not speak with Clark or interview Smith. No other mental health assessments or treatment were administered to Smith. On November 15, 1996, Smith hanged himself in his cell.

Clark sued the County, PHS, and numerous individual defendants in state court, alleging negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress, by failing to: provide mental health care; properly classify; and take precautions to prevent Smith’s suicide. She also alleged a failure to adequately train employees in attending to pretrial detainees. The trial court dismissed the claim against PHS, finding that it was a professional malpractice claim, but Clark failed to file an expert affidavit setting forth the alleged negligent acts and the factual basis for the claim, as required by OCGA § 9-11-9.1. The court granted the County and individual defendants summary judgment in their official capacities, on the basis of sovereign immunity. It then granted summary judgment to three defendants in their individual capacities, finding that their negligence occurred in the performance of discretionary functions, so they were entitled to official immunity. The court rejected the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, finding the alleged misconduct did not rise to the level of outrageousness necessary for the claim. Finally, the court found four individual defendants were not entitled to official immunity on the negligence claims because they performed ministerial rather than discretionary functions.

The Court of Appeals reversed dismissal of the PHS claim, finding it was a simple negligence, rather than a medical malpractice claim. Therefore, OCFA § 9-11-9.1 was inapplicable. The court also concluded Mallory was not entitled to official immunity. His functions were ministerial, rather than discretionary. The court also upheld denial of official immunity to four other individual defendants.

The court upheld dismissal of the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, finding that the claim requires such conduct as “the recitation of the facts to an average member of the community would rouse his resentment against the actor, and lead him to exclaim, ‘Outrageous.’” The court found the conduct of the individual defendants did not rise to that level. See: Clark v. Prison Health Services, Inc., 257 Ga. App. 787, 572 SE.2d 342 (GA CA, 4th Div. 10/9/02).

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Related legal case

Clark v. Prison Health Services, Inc.