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$7.9 Million Award Against New York County and Medical Contractor in Jail Suicide Case

A New York federal jury awarded $7.9 million to the estate of Bartholomew Ryan, 32, who committed suicide at the Nassau County Jail. The jury found the county and its medical contractor, Armor Correctional Health Services, were negligent and had violated Ryan’s constitutional rights.

Ryan was a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq. His family said that when he returned from eight months of combat duty, he was a different person after his military service from 2003 to 2007. “Mentally, he changed,” said the attorney representing his estate, Nicholas Warywoda. “Due to what he saw and experienced.”

In addition to being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Ryan suffered from bipolar disorder and depression. He began using opiates to treat a boot camp injury and became addicted, which led him to start abusing heroin and other drugs. Police arrested him on a charge of driving under the influence of drugs in February 2012.

When booking Ryan, jail guard Michael Archer classified him as suicidal despite the fact that he did not express suicidal thoughts. The classification was made because Ryan said he was taking psychotropic medication, and he was placed in “constant observation” until mental health staff could assess him.

An Armor psychologist made an assessment 18 hours after Ryan’s arrest. The only diagnosis was opiate dependency. The psychiatrist did not make a PTSD or bipolar disorder diagnosis, nor did he prescribe any medications for Ryan’s mental health issues. Just six hours later, Ryan killed himself on February 24, 2012.

In a March 2013 report, the New York Commission of Correction found the Armor psychiatrist performed an inadequate assessment of Ryan’s mental health condition in the hours before he committed suicide. Armor disputed that finding, but State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman had previously sued the company for inadequate care at the Nassau County Jail, resulting in a settlement in October 2016. [See: PLN, July 2017, p.30].

“It angers me just because it verifies that the health care provided and correction officers didn’t take the correct steps to save my brother’s life,” said Thomas Ryan. “It is surprising to me that a functioning facility in one of the richest counties in the country has such holes in their system.”

At trial, Armor’s attorneys argued there was “no forewarning” that Ryan would kill himself. They said the suicide occurred because two guards were distracted, not due to a lack of care. The jury disagreed and entered a verdict on April 12, 2017 that found Armor 55% at fault for Ryan’s suicide while Nassau County was 25% at fault.

Attributing most of the fault to Armor may have much to do with the company’s policy which stated detainees with “urgent” medical needs can wait up to 24 hours for care.

“If they had listened to that [booking] form that deemed him a suicide risk, we wouldn’t be here today,” Warywoda told the jury.

After finding Armor and Nassau County liable for negligence and cruel and unusual punishment, the jury awarded $370,000 for pain and suffering on the negligence claim, $520,000 for pain and suffering on the civil rights claim, and $7 million in punitive damages.

“Justice is done,” said Thomas Ryan.

The case remains pending on post-trial motions. See: Ryan v. County of Nassau, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NY), Case No. 2:12-cv-05343-JS-SIL. 

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Related legal case

Ryan v. County of Nassau