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Tennessee Judge Denies Summary Judgment Motion in Jail Suicide Suit; Case Settles

by Derek Gilna

On June 13, 2016, U.S. District CourtJudge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr. denied a motion submitted by Robertson County, Tennessee officials seeking to dismiss a §1983 civil rights case brought by the mother of Matthew J. Burns, who committed suicide while confined at the Robertson County Detention Facility (RCDF).

Despite the fact that Burns’ family had contacted RCDF staff after his arrest and before he was jailed to warn them about his suicidal tendencies, he was not screened by appropriate medical professionals and was placed in general population. He took his own life two days later, on September 16, 2012.

 According to the district court’s opinion, “In the year before he committed suicide at the RCDF, [Burns] received treatment at both a mental health facility and a detoxification facility.... Approximately five months before his death, he was hospitalized for an overdose of medication, which his family members believed to be a deliberate suicide attempt.”

Despite those facts, the judge noted in his ruling, the only licensed medical professional on duty when Burns was admitted to the jail was Nurse Chezem, a licensed practical nurse, “which required [only] twelve months of study at a vocational school.... Mr. Burns received no care for his mental health issues. RCDF did not administer any medications to him, either for his pain or for his bipolar disorder. Nurse Chezem had no knowledge about the purpose of [Burns’] medications, their side effects, or the risks of abruptly ending the medications.”

The district court also addressed the fact that in 2010, more than two years prior to Burns’ suicide, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had launched an investigation into health and nutrition policies at RCDF. On August 11, 2011, the DOJ issued a written report which stated, in part, “we found a pattern or practice of constitutional violations in RCDF’s provision of mental health care. Specifically, RCDF’s mental health practices place prisoners at a substantial and unreasonable risk of serious harm.”

Citing from that report, Judge Crenshaw stated: “The Constitution protects prisoners not only against ongoing harms, but also against the risk of future harm,” quoting Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25 (1993) (“That the Eighth Amendment protects against future harm to inmates is not a novel proposition.... It would be odd to deny an injunction to inmates who plainly proved an unsafe, life-threatening condition in their prison on the ground that nothing yet had happened to them”).

When § 1983 lawsuits name municipal entities as defendants rather than individuals, case law requires that for such entities to be held liable a plaintiff must show its policies, practices or customs caused the constitutional injury. Since the DOJ’s report had outlined the flaws in RCDF’s mental health policies, which put the defendants on notice, the district court concluded that “a jury could find that Robertson County was deliberately indifferent to Mr. Burns’s medical needs and that its policies and practices caused Mr. Burns’s death.”

After the county’s motion for summary judgment was denied, the parties entered into settlement negotiations and, in August 2016, agreed to settle the case for an undisclosed amount. See: Burns v. Robertson County,U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:13-cv-00974. 


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Related legal case

Burns v. Robertson County