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Fifth Circuit Reinstates Texas Jail Suicide Lawsuit

A passerby told City of Kemah, Texas Police Officer Marcus Way that a man, later identified as Chad Ernest Lee Silvis, 26, was threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. Way reported a possible “jumper” on his police radio. Officers James Melton and Ruben Kimball, along with dispatcher Anna Maria Whelan, heard the broadcast. Way, Kimball and Melton met at the bridge and, after conversing with Silvis, Melton managed to forcibly pull him off the bridge railing. They took him to the city jail and watched while he was booked.

Kimball prepared a cell and gave Silvis a blanket. Way told Kimball to take his shoes. After he was booked, Way, Kimball, Melton, and Whelan all observed Silvis in his cell with the blanket.

Silvis was disruptive, yelling for medical help, banging his hands against the cell door and shouting that he “should have jumped” and would jump tomorrow after he got out of jail. Nonetheless, none of the jail staff removed the blanket from the cell, and Silvis used it to hang himself. His body was not discovered until 45 minutes later.

Silvis’ family members filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 lawsuit against Kimball, Melton, Way, and Whelan, alleging they violated Silvis’ civil rights by being deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs when they provided him with a blanket, failed to remove the blanket, and failed to monitor him knowing he was suicidal. The district court dismissed the lawsuit under Rule 12(b)(6), Fed. R. Civ. P. based on qualified immunity. Plaintiffs appealed.

The Fifth Circuit noted that it held pretrial detainees have a constitutional right to be protected from a known risk of suicide in Hare v. City of Corinth, 74 F.3d 633 (5th Cir. 1996). Accepting the allegations in the pleadings as true, plaintiffs sufficiently alleged that the defendants had subjective awareness that Silvis was at substantial risk of suicide and responded with deliberate indifference.

Whelan heard about the incident on the bridge and heard the threats of suicide in the jail. Kimball, Melton, and Way were present on the bridge and heard the threats of suicide in the jail. Kimball gave him the blanket, but took away his shoes, showing he had an awareness of the danger that Silvis might use shoelaces to hang himself. Way told Kimball to take the shoes, showing a similar awareness.

All four defendants were allegedly trained not to give suicidal prisoners blankets and to monitor them frequently, were given copies of written jail policies to that effect, were aware that suicide was the leading cause of death in Texas jails, and had seen media reports of jail prisoner suicides using bedding. If these allegations are proven, they show deliberate indifference.

Related legal case

Converse v. City of Kemah