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$110,000 Settlement in Suit over Nebraska Jail Prisoner’s Suicide

$110,000 Settlement in Suit over Nebraska Jail Prisoner’s Suicide

by Matt Clarke

Lincoln County, the City of North Platte and Great Plains Regional Medical Center agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the sister of a Nebraska jail prisoner who committed suicide. As part of the settlement, the county agreed to modify its jail policy to ensure a medical or mental health professional must have performed and documented a suicide risk evaluation prior to a prisoner being taken off suicide watch.

Phillip Hatcher, 27, a veteran of multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq who was suffering from PTSD, was arrested in 2008 for suspicion of theft and traffic offenses while in the act of attempting suicide by cutting his wrists at a motel. The arresting North Platte police officers took him to a hospital for evaluation and a medical clearance to transport him to the county jail.

Hospital personnel learned that Hatcher had a history of serious mental illness that included flashbacks, suicidal thoughts and previous suicide attempts, and was suicidal for multiple reasons, including a recently-ended romantic relationship, difficulty sleeping, lack of appetite, and financial and legal problems. Despite his refusal to sign a “no suicide” contract, hospital officials released him to be jailed.

Hatcher was transferred to the Lincoln County jail and placed on suicide watch. The next day, without any medical or mental health personnel having evaluated him for risk of suicide, he was removed from suicide watch. Two days later Hatcher used a sock to hang himself in his cell; he was taken to a hospital where he died a few days later.

Kara Hawkins, Hatcher’s sister and representative of his estate, filed a civil rights suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court alleging that police, hospital and jail staff had been deliberately indifference to Hatcher’s serious medical needs in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. The defendants settled the lawsuit by paying $110,000, inclusive of all costs and attorney fees. Hawkins donated $50,000 of her portion of the settlement to Soldier’s Heart, a non-profit organization that assists veterans with PTSD.

“It is like an organ donation,” she said. “If other veterans are saved from suicide because this donation helps them to afford treatment, then Phillip has lived on.”

“Contrary to popular belief, suicide victims do not ‘make their own choices,’” said Hawkins’ attorney, Maren Lynn Chaloupka, who specializes in representing families who have lost loved ones to suicide. “Suicide is a symptom of severe mental illness. Often that mental illness can be treated if those charged with caring for a mentally ill person just respect the warning signs.” See: Hawkins v. County of Lincoln, U.S.D.C. (D. Neb.), Case No. 7:10-cv-05001-JMG-CRZ.


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Related legal case

Hawkins v. County of Lincoln