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Eighth Circuit Overturns Jury’s $850,000 Verdict for Nebraska Detainee’s Suicide

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a jury’s verdict in favor of the estate of a pre-trial detainee who committed suicide at Nebraska’s Dodge County Jail. Circuit Judge Kermit E. Bye filed a dissenting opinion that criticized the majority for substituting its judgment in place of the jury’s.

The August 10, 2006 suicide of detainee Troy Sampson was the third suicide since 2000 at the Dodge County Jail (DCJ), which closed in 2011. The facility also had twenty-one suicide attempts during that time period.

Sampson’s estate filed suit claiming that the DCJ defendants were deliberately indifferent to his medical needs. The federal district court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, in which they asserted a qualified immunity defense, holding there were factual questions for the jury to determine.

Following a six-day trial, the jury entered a verdict on June 28, 2010 that found DCJ director Doug Campbell and Cynthia Julian, a registered nurse employed by DCJ, were deliberately indifferent to Sampson’s serious medical needs. The jury also held Dodge County liable “for a custom or policy of failing to implement reasonable suicide prevention practices,” but found for the county on a failure to train claim. Sampson’s estate was awarded $750,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages – $75,000 against Campbell and $25,000 against Julian. [See: PLN, Dec. 2010, p.48].

On appeal, the Eighth Circuit found an “objective review of the evidence that is deferential to the verdict reveals the preventative measures taken by DCJ were not so inadequate as to constitute deliberate indifference.” The appellate court noted Sampson had been detained at DCJ for fewer than twelve days, and that although jail officials were advised that he had recently attempted suicide, prior to his death Sampson did not attempt suicide or claim to be suicidal.

Julian had assessed Sampson on two occasions and arranged for him to have two appointments with DCJ’s psychiatrist, including the day of his suicide. She also gathered information from Sampson’s outside psychiatrist concerning his condition and reviewed his medical records. Sampson’s written medical requests were responded to in writing, and Julian contacted the doctor when Sampson appeared to be overmedicated. Finally, Sampson was placed on suicide watch. The Court of Appeals held these actions indicated that Julian was not apathetic or unconcerned about Sampson’s condition.

As to Campbell, the Eighth Circuit observed that “the evidence does not paint an impressive picture of his performance as DCJ director.” Yet he could not be held liable based on his failure to follow DCJ’s suicide prevention procedures. The appellate court also found that Dodge County could not be held liable based on flaws in its practices.

In dissent, Judge Bye noted what Julian had failed to do. In addition to not following written procedures, there were several missed suicide watches, problems with dispensing medications and following doctor’s prescriptions in medication changes, and a failure to inform DCJ’s psychiatrist that Sampson had attempted to commit suicide only two weeks earlier. She also did not inform the doctor of “Sampson’s request for solitary confinement, his increasingly frantic notes, or his refusal to eat.”

Campbell was likewise aware of the prior suicide attempt, and in his eleven-year tenure as DCJ’s director, he had never “enforced, or even knew of” DCJ’s suicide prevention policy. Although Sampson had asked to be placed in a suicide-proof cell, his request was denied because the cell was unavailable. Finally, Dodge County’s inaction in the face of prior suicides and suicide attempts at DCJ entitled the jury “to infer that a pattern of constitutional misconduct existed and was allowed to flourish ad infinitum.”

Unfortunately, Judge Bye’s dissent was just that. The majority opinion, filed on June 22, 2012, granted qualified immunity to the defendants or held they were not liable with respect to Sampson’s death. Consequently, the $850,000 jury award was vacated, as was the district court’s award of attorney fees and costs to Sampson’s estate. See: Luckert v. Dodge County, 684 F.3d 808 (8th Cir. 2012), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Luckert v. Dodge County