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$2 Million Settlement in Lawsuit Over California Jail Prisoner’s Suicide

by Matt Clarke

In March 2019, Kern County, California agreed to pay $2 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the parents and estate of a man who committed suicide at the county’s jail. The suit alleged jail staff ignored obvious signs of his mental instability and self-harm behavior at intake.

Sergio Derkevorkian, 29, called 911 to report his involvement in a single-vehicle accident. He told responding officers “I’m a danger to myself,” but denied drug use. He acted paranoid, saying someone was trying to kill him, and made other bizarre statements and refused transportation to a hospital. The officers concluded he was under the influence of a controlled substance, arrested him and took him to a substation to conduct a Drug Recognition Evaluation (DRE). During the DRE, Derkevorkian became increasingly “paranoid and delusional.” He was then taken to a hospital.

At the hospital, Derkevorkian began to cry, scream and falsely accuse the officers of placing drugs in his rectum and a nurse who gave him a cup of water of trying to poison him. He thought everyone around him was laughing at him and trying to drug him. He panicked and curled up on the floor.

Officers took Derkevorkian to the Kern County jail in Bakersfield. Receiving deputies thought he was delusional. Deputy Marcum asked the intake screening questions at a very fast pace, paraphrasing some of them and omitting others. Derkevorkian did not respond to a question about whether he was feeling suicidal. Marcum later stated that she was trained to ask the intake questions at a high rate of speed to minimize her contact with prisoners in order to “maximize officer safety.” She also ignored Derkevorkian’s positive answers to Prison Rape Elimination Act-related questions. She noted his bizarre behavior, but believed it was due to being under the influence of drugs.

Derkevorkian was sent to the county jail at Lerdo, but, contrary to jail policy, was not interviewed at intake. A family friend called the jail to inform staff that Derkevorkian was suicidal; however, he was never seen by mental health providers or placed on suicide watch. Instead, he was put in a segregation cell where, two days later, he hanged himself using a bedsheet.

With the assistance of Pasadena attorneys Ronald O. Kayne and Kevin J. LaHue, Derkevorkian’s parents and estate filed a civil rights suit against Kern County, its sheriff, the head of its mental health department and various jail personnel.

During the course of pre-trial discovery, it was revealed that deputies received little or no training on mental health issues and intake screening. Most were unaware of multiple recent suicides at the jail, or that suicide was the leading cause of prisoner deaths in California jails. In light of those unfavorable facts, the county opted to settle the case for $2 million.

“It’s a real tragedy and it seems it should have been prevented at multiple stages during his incarceration,” LaHue said of Derkevorkian’s death. “He came in and was presenting this bizarre, erratic behavior. And he was never referred to mental health despite the fact that they have mental health staff on the premises.” See: Lopez v. County of Kern, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Cal.), Case No. 1:17-cv-00864-AWI-JLT. 


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Related legal case

Lopez v. County of Kern