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$2.85 Million Jury Verdict for Suicide at Missouri Jail

$2.85 Million Jury Verdict for Suicide at Missouri Jail

by Derek Gilna

On January 18, 2013, following a five-day trial, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri returned a verdict of $2.85 million against the City of Sullivan, finding that negligence by employees at the Sullivan County Jail had led to the suicide of detainee Karen A. Palmer. Palmer had been arrested and booked into the facility on trespassing charges in 2009, and the mother of her fiancé had advised jail officials that Palmer was suicidal and required constant observation.

Jail supervisors and guards ignored that warning, however, and Palmer used the string in the hood of her sweatshirt to hang herself. Although guards initially claimed that they had monitored the video camera in her cell every ten minutes, her body was not found for more than two hours.

After Palmer’s death, her mother and other family members representing her estate sued the city and jail employees, alleging that Palmer “was in obvious need of serious medical care in that she suffered from a known depression condition and/or was an obvious substantial risk of harm to herself.”

The magistrate judge handling pretrial motions granted summary judgment in favor of the city and the Sullivan police department on the plaintiffs’ deliberate indifference claim, but allowed a negligence claim to proceed. One of Palmer’s attorneys, Donald Schlapprizzi, convinced the jury of the culpability of jail officials based in large part on video footage that showed they had failed to properly monitor Palmer’s cell at the time she committed suicide.

The jury awarded $1.3 million in actual damages and a combined total of $1,550,000 against four individual jail employees – Jeff Rohrer, Don Reed, Shaun Hinson and Kevin Halbert – for “aggravating circumstances.” Schlapprizzi said Palmer’s family “believes they were vindicated” by the verdict, and that the jurors “spoke as the conscience of the community.” See: Tanner v. City of Sullivan, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mo.), Case No. 4:11-cv-01361-NAB.

The defendants filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law, or for a new trial or remittitur of the damages award, which was denied by the district court in June 2013. They appealed the verdict the following month, posting a bond in the amount of $2.86 million. The appeal remains pending before the Eighth Circuit.

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Related legal case

Tanner v. City of Sullivan