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Texas Tech and TDCJ Settle Prisoner Suicide Suit for $85,000

On April 2, 2009, Texas Tech University Health Science Center (TTUHSC) and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) settled for $85,000 a lawsuit involving a prisoner who committed suicide at the Clements Unit.

Theodore Schmerber was a Texas state prisoner when he committed suicide by tearing a damaged anti-suicide blanket and using the strips to hang himself from a light fixture in a Crisis Management Cell on October 20, 2006. On October 19, 2006, Schmerber had been given a mental health evaluation. The evaluator found him to be delusional with suicidal ideation and intent and noted that he required emergent care. This resulted in his transfer to the Crisis Management Cell with mandatory checks by guards every 15 minutes.

On October 20th, Schmerber had been seen by five nurses and a psychiatric nurse practitioner, all of whom noted delusional and suicidal behavior and two of whom recommended that he be transferred to the psychiatric facility at the Montfort Unit for stabilization. Even though he had injured himself by slamming his head against the cell wall that day, none of them made sure that he was actually transferred to Monfort.

The guards on the pod where Schmerber was housed failed to conduct the every-15-minute bed checks. Schmerber hung himself. A nurse discovered him hanging, but failed to enter the cell and attempt to help him.

Schmerber’s mother filed a civil rights suit in federal district court against TDCJ and TTUHSC employees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She alleged that the failure to send her son to Montfort, to check the blankets for damage and defects and to conduct the suicide watch bed checks constituted deliberate indifference to her son’s medical condition and right to protection from known suicidal tendencies. She also made state law claims of negligent wrongful death. TDCJ removed similar light fixtures from its Crisis Management Cells and inspected its suicide prevention blankets, discarding damaged blankets. It also disciplined the guards who failed to conduct the bed checks and had tried to cover it up by later falsifying records.

Admitting no wrongdoing, TTUHSC and TDCJ settled the suit for $85,000. “To TDCJ’s credit they examined the cells and made sure the manner in which Schmerber committed suicide couldn’t happen again,” said plaintiff’s attorney Jeff Edwards of Amarillo. “One of the reasons my client was willing to resolve the case was because they were taking proactive steps.”

The plaintiff was also represented by Baltimore, Maryland, attorney Steven H. Heisler. See: Daniels v. Smith, U.S.D.C.-N.D.Tex., No. 2-07-CV-227-J.

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Related legal case

Daniels v. Smith

Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case.