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Two Fulton County Jail Employees Subject to Liability in Detainee’s Suicide

A Georgia Court of Appeals held in March 2016 that two employees of the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office could be held liable in the suicide of a pre-trial detainee.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the estate of Richard W. Hill, Jr., who was arrested on May 21, 2010. Due to overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail (FCJ), Hill was transferred to a jail in Hall County, which had a contract with FCJ.

The Fulton County Superior Court entered an order on September 7, 2010 that directed jail officials to place Hill on suicide watch and house him in protective custody.

Hill was scheduled to appear in court on September 16, 2010, and was returned to Fulton County for the hearing. Hall County guard Stephanie Bennett said she spoke to FCJ jailer Milton Weaver and showed him the suicide watch order. Weaver disputed that, claiming Bennett only told him that Hill should be separated from other prisoners.

Weaver placed Hill in an attorney’s booth, removed his handcuffs and shackles, then left him and went to another part of the facility. Later, another guard looked into the attorney’s booth and noticed Hill was not wearing pants. When jail staff opened the door, they found Hill had used his pants to hang himself.

Hill’s estate filed a wrongful death suit in state court that named multiple Fulton County deputies, the sheriff, Weaver and Bennett, civilian employee Nitosha Riley, Correctional Medical Associates and a CMA employee as defendants. The trial court, in three separate orders, granted the defendants’ motions for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.

The appellate court affirmed except as to Weaver and Riley – Riley was a “writer” in the FCJ records department who was responsible for recording court orders concerning prisoners at the jail. The Court of Appeals found the trial court had erred in not finding they were performing ministerial, not discretionary, duties for the purpose of a qualified immunity analysis.

While it was disputed as to whether Weaver was actually aware of the suicide watch order, the appellate court had to assume at this stage of the proceedings that he was aware. It then cited FCJ policies which required him to take certain steps and actions with respect to a suicidal prisoner. His failure to follow those policies meant he could not raise a qualified immunity defense.

As for Riley, she had a duty to record the suicide watch order on Hill’s information card so it could be entered into the jail’s computer system. It was undisputed that she failed to do so, which also precluded her from qualified immunity.

Accordingly, the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to Weaver and Riley was reversed, but affirmed as to the other defendants. See: Hill v. Jackson, 336 Ga. App. 679, 783 S.E.2d 719 (Ga. Ct. App. 2016), cert. denied. 

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Related legal case

Hill v. Jackson