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$850,000 Verdict in Nebraska Prisoner’s Suicide

A Nebraska federal jury has awarded $850,000 to the estate of a prisoner who hanged himself with a bed sheet in his cell at the Dodge County Correctional Facility (DCC). The estate’s attorney, Maren L. Chaloupka, hailed the verdict as a wake-up call for jail officials.

After Troy Sampson was booked into DCC on July 30, 2006, his mother, Sherry Luckert, called Doug Campbell, DCC’s director, to advise him that Sampson had “attempted suicide about two weeks ago – he tried to hang himself.”

Based upon that information and the fact that there had been two other suicides at DCC since 2001, Campbell ordered Sampson placed on twenty-minute watch. The next day Cynthia Julian, DCC’s nurse, assessed Sampson and found he had a number of mental problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety attacks.

Despite that determination, Julian “did not believe at that time that [Sampson] was a danger to himself or others.” Thus, she changed his suicide watch from twenty to thirty minutes. Julian then took action to have medication prescribed for Sampson, which was done by his regular treating physician until DCC’s doctor could review the matter.

On August 2 and 7, 2006, Sampson submitted several request forms asking to be placed in “solitary” without a T.V. or window, but with access to a phone. He indicated the T.V. was making him go insane. Julian responded, “No cells like that are available. Sorry. We are full.” In other words, overcrowding at the facility prevented the move.

Sampson was found hanging from a bed sheet attached to a vent in his cell on August 10, 2006. The guards on duty had not received training in suicide prevention. A civil rights complaint filed by Sampson’s estate charged deliberate indifference to his serious mental health needs and failure to properly train staff.

Following an eight-day trial that concluded on June 28, 2010, the jury found Dodge County, Campbell and Julian liable. It awarded $750,000 in actual damages plus punitive damages of $75,000 and $25,000 against Campbell and Julian, respectively.

“This verdict means Troy Sampson did not die in vain because, hopefully, Dodge County will listen and change how they handle the mentally ill in the future,” said Chaloupka. “This is a victory for all mentally ill inmates in our state because jailers will have to take notice.”

The case remains pending on post-trial motions, including Chaloupka’s motion seeking $113,134.70 in attorney’s fees and costs. See: Luckert v. County of Dodge, U.S.D.C. (D. Neb.), Case No. 8:07-cv-05010-JFB-TDT.

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Related legal case

Luckert v. County of Dodge