Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Kansas Supreme Court Reverses Jail Suicide Summary Judgment

The Kansas Supreme Court unanimously held that jailers were not entitled to summary judgment for failing to prevent a detainee's suicide.

Anthony Stapleton was detained in the Shawnee County Adult Detention Center, from October 23, 2002, until his November 29, 2002 suicide. While there, Stapleton was given suicide risk evaluations which revealed several suicide risk factors, resulting in Stapleton's placement in the Close Observation unit.

"The role of guards in Close Observation was to watch all of the inmates, to follow the policy of checking on each inmate visually every 15 minutes, and to conduct cell shakedowns once per shift." Changes in detainees’ behavior, symptomatic of suicide, were to be reported to supervisors who would then order a new suicide screening.

Prisoners were not allowed to cover their cell windows, but often did when using the toilet. Guards were not allowed to watch television during their shift in the unit.

In late November, 2002, Stapleton had not eaten for three days so guards made a "deal" with him. If he started eating again, they would allow him to call his mother because he wanted to tell her that he loved her. That phone call occurred a day or two before Stapleton killed himself. Stapleton's mother told a guard that she was concerned because "her husband had committed suicide and ... Stapleton had attempted suicide a month before his detention. The guard told (her) not to worry because Stapleton was in a special unit being watched."

Two days before he committed suicide, Stapleton was seen crying, according to Unit Progress Notes. "The notes also indicate that Stapleton talked about getting high most of the day before his suicide." About an hour before his suicide, Stapleton argued with a guard over the size of his jumpsuit.

"At 10:16 a.m., Stapleton's roommate said he could not get the door of their cell open. The window of the cell door had been covered." Guard David Tipton "went to the cell and saw what appeared to be a sheet wedged in the door. Tipton found Stapleton hanging from the other side of the door, unwound the sheet from his neck, and placed him on the floor for medical attention." Efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

After his death, three suicide notes were found in Stapleton's cell; one was undated and the others were dated November 3, 2002 and November 23, 2002.

Fellow detainee Darrell Myrick reported that "on the day of Stapleton's suicide," he said "he was going to kill himself two or three times." Tipton did not conduct his 10 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. tier checks – corroborated by the unit log book – because he was watching television, according to Myrick. When Myrick "looked over at Stapleton's cell door… he could see a big ball with a" 6-8 inch knot "hanging over the top of the door."

Father Joseph Chontos, the jail chaplain, reported that after Stapleton's suicide Tipton said he "believed Stapleton should have been moved to Suicide Watch because he was a threat to himself."

Stapleton's family filed federal suit. When those claims were dismissed in 2005, Plaintiffs brought a negligence action in state court against Tipton, shift supervisor Matthew Biltoft and others.

The state court granted Defendants summary judgment, concluding that they had not breached their duty of care to Stapleton and they were immune from suit under the Kansas Tort Claims Act (KTCA).

The Kansas Supreme Court noted that Defendants acknowledged that they owed Stapleton a duty of reasonable care. The Court observed that Defendants' duty "is triggered by actual or constructive knowledge of a prisoner's unreasonable risk of suicide."

Since Plaintiffs offered evidence that Defendants had actual or constructive knowledge of Stapleton's suicide risk and breached their duty to protect him, the Court determined that Defendants were not entitled to summary judgment.

The Court also held that Tipton and Biltoft were not immune from liability under the KTCA because policies strictly circumscribed or eliminated their exercise of judgment. See: Thomas v. County Commissioners of Shawnee County, Kansas, 293 Kan. 208 (Kan. 2011).

Additional source: The Capital-Journal

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Thomas v. County Commissioners of Shawnee County, Kansas