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Fifth Circuit Reinstates Lawsuit Over Texas Jail Prisoner’s Death

Diana Simpson had previously attempted suicide when she told her husband she would try again by overdosing on pills. She even laid out her plan to get cash from an ATM and check into a motel where he could not find her. A few weeks later, when he noticed a withdrawal from their bank account, he became worried. But he was unable to contact her. When she missed work the next evening, he notified law enforcement.

Police in a nearby city found Simpson asleep in her car the next day, surrounded by empty beer containers and empty blister packs of medication. They asked her how much she had taken. She said, “all of it.”

After denying it to police, Simpson admitted to a medic she was trying to kill herself. She was arrested for public intoxication and taken to the Young County Jail, where jailers only partially completed the book-in process before placing Simpson in a holding cell to “sleep it off” because they assumed she was drunk. Simpson’s husband called the jail three times, told jailers she had been missing and was suicidal and asked them to get her help. They ignored him.

Hours later, Simpson was found half-naked and dead of “mixed-drug intoxication” on the floor of her holding cell. Her family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Young County and its sheriff’s department, alleging they deprived her of her civil rights.

The district court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case on two theories: Neither the jail’s “episodic acts or omissions” nor its “conditions of confinement” rendered it liable for Simpson’s death. The appeals court agreed with dismissal on the first theory but remanded the case for the district court to reconsider the plaintiffs’ other claims, ruling that they raised a question as to the possibility that the jail had created a de facto policy allowing improper monitoring – a question which could be factually answered.

On remand, the district court again granted summary judgment. On appeal following remand, the Fifth Circuit noted that jailers had testified that there was a policy of having highly intoxicated pre-trial detainees “sleep it off” before completing the mandatory suicide-screening form, a computer-based medical intake form, as well as a state-mandated Continuity of Care Query. The only thing jailers had to go on were Simpson’s own responses to the first part of the suicide-screening form in which she denied having taken medication.

A Texas Ranger who investigated the death noted discrepancies between jail logs of checks on Simpson’s cell and video recordings of the cell area. Her death occurred some time during a six-hour period for which video was inexplicably missing. Even these questionable records showed excessive periods between cell checks.

During the five years prior to Simpson’s death, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards filed numerous reports citing the jail for several failures:

• to properly complete intake screening forms,

• to properly monitor prisoners, and

• to document the monitoring.

These reports put the sheriff on notice of the problems, the appeals court noted. The claim covered failure to assess, monitor and train. The last was barred by the previous summary judgment, but the others were not.

Jailers consistently testified that the suicide-screening and medical intake forms were not completed until a highly intoxicated detainee had “slept it off.” Together with a de facto policy of not monitoring highly intoxicated prisoners, this could have denied Simpson her needed medical care.

The Fifth Circuit opinion said: “The County has no apparent process or policy for preventing such an overdosee from successfully killing herself. The jail has no medical staff, jailers do not consider outside information that contradicts what a detainee states at intake, and after intake, jailers do not conduct follow-up assessments. The only follow-up they do is periodic monitoring. And Plaintiffs claim that this monitoring is pervasively inadequate. Given the different, compounding ways that these alleged policies might interact, a jury could reasonably conclude that they had a ‘mutually enforcing effect’ that deprived Simpson of needed medical care.”

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Related legal case

Sanchez v. Young County