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$637,500 Settlement for Texas Jail Suicide

On March 9, 2017, Ochiltree County, Texas settled a lawsuit brought by the family of a woman who committed suicide at the local jail, agreeing to pay $637,500. The county also paid guardian ad litem fees of $10,100 and agreed to change policies at the facility to help prevent future suicides.

Amber May, a mother of twin eight-year-old daughters who had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts, was arrested and taken to the Ochiltree County Jail in 2014. Her mental health problems were known to jail officials in the sparsely-populated Texas Panhandle county; further, she stated on her booking form that she was taking psychotropic medication and was depressed and suicidal. Nonetheless, jailers placed her in the only cell that had a corded telephone. It was also the only cell without a video surveillance camera.

The guards did not put May on suicide watch and did not conduct visual monitoring of her cell as required by jail policy. She hanged herself using the phone cord.

With the assistance of Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Hani Mirza, May’s parents and children filed a federal civil rights lawsuit pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12131, and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794, against Ochiltree County, and raised pendent state wrongful death tort claims. The county agreed to settle the case and make changes to the jail’s policies and practices.

Each of May’s daughters received a trust fund worth $237,500, while her parents received $30,000 each, the estate received $25,000 and $85,000 was paid in attorney fees. The county paid an additional $10,100 to the daughters’ guardian ad litem, plus court costs.

Ochiltree County also agreed to change jail policies to include better suicide risk assessment and monitoring of at-risk prisoners, suicide prevention and CPR training for jail employees, and changes to booking, housing and monitoring policies to help identify at-risk prisoners and prevent suicides. See: Coffey v. Ochiltree County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Tex.), Case No. 2:16-cv-00071-J-BB.

“After many years, we are happy that justice was done in our daughter’s case. When she left this earth, she left behind two small daughters and a family that needed her. Her death could have been prevented if county officials had followed the procedures they needed to follow on how to treat people with mental illnesses,” May’s parents stated. “We hope the settlement creates change in the county and throughout the state. No other family should have to go through what we did.” 

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Related legal case

Coffey v. Ochiltree County