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San Diego County Pays $4.35 Million After Jail Guards Failed to Stop Detainee From Blinding Herself

by David M. Reutter

The County of San Diego agreed on September 14, 2022, to pay $4.35 million to settle a lawsuit alleging a guard at the county lockup stood by and failed to stop a detainee high on meth from clawing her eyes out.

Tanya Suarez was taken into custody on May 6, 2019, after police found her wandering outside a motel where she had taken drugs. Suarez, 23, a student at San Diego State University, had started experimenting with meth. On the evening of her arrest, that “experiment went terribly wrong,” according to the complaint later filed on her behalf.

After she was booked into the Las Colinas women’s jail, she began acting oddly and started clawing at her eyes. In a delusional hysteria, Suarez screamed at guards to shoot her. She also voiced suspicion that they and medical staff were going to torture her.

Guards tried to restrain her, handcuffing her and placing a spit sock over her head – even clipping her nails so that it would be more difficult to harm herself, though one deputy admitted the attempt left her nails looking more ragged. A surveillance camera than captured the moment six minutes later when one of her eyeballs fell to the floor. Seconds later, her other eyeball was out. A guard watching outside the cell then allegedly walked away, and it was another five or 10 minutes before help arrived.

With the aid of San Diego attorney Danielle R. Pena of the PHG Law Group, Suarez – who is now totally blind – filed suit in federal court for the Southern District of California, accusing jailers of failing to protect her from a known risk that she might harm herself.

Defendants argued that Suarez never threatened any self-harm, so they couldn’t have known of her “intent to engage in enucleation,” the Court later recalled. Suarez countered that “a reasonable nurse in the same situation would have recognized Plaintiff’s behavior as self-harming and identified Plaintiff as a detainee potentially at risk for self-harm.” Citing Deloney v. Cty. of Fresno, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71089 (E.D. Cal.), the Court agreed that Suarez had adequately pleaded that “Defendants were aware of or should have been aware of … suicidal ideations.”

Defendant nurse Shannon Keene also argued she had qualified immunity from liability “because her alleged conduct did not violate clearly established law,” the Court noted. Suarez disagreed, insisting “it was clearly established that leaving Plaintiff alone and unrestrained in a jail cell, instead of ordering psychiatric services and monitoring, would violate Plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment right.”

Again the Court sided with Suarez. Pointing to Castro v. Cty. of L.A., 833 F.3d 1060 (9th Cir. 2016), the Court said that what she alleged – that Keene and other defendants “failed to address Plaintiff’s serious medical needs in violation of her Fourteenth Amendment rights” – was sufficient, since her “right to be free from violations of this constitutional right was well-established by 2019.”

Thus the Court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss on February 16, 2021. See: Suarez v. Cty. of San Diego, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29065 (S.D. Cal.). The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, which included fees for Suarez’s attorney. See: Suarez v. Cty. of San Diego, USDC (S.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:20-cv-00456.

While the settlement resolves Suarez’s claims, she remains completely blinded. Moreover, conditions within San Diego County jails continue to create a severe risk of harm or death for detainees. The county Sheriff’s Department says it has adopted measures to address the problems, but deaths were at a record pace in late 2022, with 19 in just over nine months. This multi-million-dollar payout is just a needle in an enormous haystack of financial damages the county and its taxpayers have been forced to pay for jail officials’ neglect and misconduct. 

Additional source: KPBS