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San Diego County Pays $250,000 After Detainee Suicide in County Jail

by Jayson Hawkins

On March 29, 2022, the federal court for the Southern District of California approved a settlement between the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department (SDSD) and the widow of a 21-year-old U.S. Marine who committed suicide while held in pretrial detention at the county’s Vista Detention Facility (VDF). The settlement awards $250,000 to Chassidy NeSmith and her young son, whose husband and father, Kristopher, hanged himself at VDF in February 2014.

Like many military service members in this era of near-constant war, NeSmith suffered from untreated mental health issues. After nearly being killed in a training accident in April 2013 at Camp Horn, his mental condition rapidly deteriorated. That summer, he went AWOL from the Marine Corps, and, upon his arrest and return to military custody, he tried to take his own life.

NeSmith’s mental state continued to spiral downward while in the brig. He was diagnosed with PTSD, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder. After release, he went over the edge. While he and his wife were visiting her mother, NeSmith assaulted two strangers, as well as his wife. Arrested and jailed on those charges, he told his wife and father over the phone that he had no choice but to take his own life.

Eventually, he did just that.

Chris Morris, Chassidy NeSmith’s attorney, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the county and numerous officials at VDF and SDSD, accusing them of failing in their duty to protect her husband and prevent his suicide. The complaint details how Kristopher NeSmith’s father informed numerous officials of his son’s problems and that his wife got him to talk in detail about his suicidal thoughts during monitored phone calls. Jail staff also had access to NeSmith’s military and medical records, which extensively detailed his mental health issues.

The Court dismissed all of Plaintiff’s claims except the one for NeSmith’s wrongful death on January 27, 2016, holding that Sheriff Bill Gore was entitled to qualified immunity (QI) because while it “was not beyond debate that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments imposed on Sheriff Gore an obligation to implement a better policy … the facts Plaintiffs allege … do not demonstrate a violation of clearly established law.” See: NeSmith v. Cty. of San Diego, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162237 (S.D. Cal.).

Plaintiff then filed an amended complaint that “provided sufficient detail showing deliberate indifference by a County employee,” as well as showing “that the County’s customs or policies amount to deliberate indifference, and that these customs or policies were a moving force” in an alleged “constitutional violation,” the Court said. So it denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss claims against the county on September 12, 2016. It also disagreed with Defendants’ argument that the complaint failed to allege NeSmith was “in need of immediate medical care” and denied a motion to dismiss the wrongful death claim, as well. See: NeSmith v. Cty. of San Diego, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 123441 (S.D. Cal.).

After denying a request to reconsider that decision and accepting a third amended complaint, the Court took up a motion to dismiss it by the County and its deputies, who claimed QI. But Plaintiffs had caught a break when a former detainee who had been NeSmith’s neighbor in jail reached out to report seeing NeSmith tie a rope noose from the light fixture in his cell, and said that guards had seen it, too. The guards all denied it, but that created a material question of fact sufficient to overcome their QI claims. So the motion to dismiss was denied on March 25, 2019. See: NeSmith v. Cty. of San Diego, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49606 (S.D. Cal.).

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit largely affirmed that decision on April 13, 2020. See: NeSmith v. Olsen, 808 F. App’x 442 (9th Cir. 2020). That got Defendants to the settlement table, where they entered into the cash settlement with Plaintiff that the Court approved. See: NeSmith v. Cty. of San Diego, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 57605 (S.D. Cal.).  

Additional source: San Diego Union-Tribune

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Related legal cases

NeSmith v. Cty. of San Diego

NeSmith v. Cty. of San Diego

NeSmith v. Cty. of San Diego

NeSmith v. Cty. of San Diego