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Tulare Co settles jail suicide lawsuit - Mario Lopez family to receive USD 1 million, Visalia Times-Delta, 2012

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Tulare County
settles jail suicide
lawsuit; Mario
Lopez's family to
receive $1m
Tulare County has settled for $1 million a
lawsuit filed by the family of an Ivanhoe
man who died in 2010 after hanging
himself inside a county jail cell.
In exchange for the money, the family of
Mario Antonio Lopez has agreed to drop a f
ederal civil rights lawsuit filed in U.S.
District Court in Fresno accusing the Tulare
County Sheriff's Department of wrongfully
jailing the man, who suffered from mental
disorders, and not providing him proper
psychiatric care over the more than three
months that he was in custody.
Lopez was found hanging from the neck in
his cell the afternoon of Nov. 25, 2010, at
the Tulare County Main Jail in Visalia. He
was pronounced dead at the scene.

careful consideration, and after mediation,
Tulare County found that is was in its best
interest to reach a settlement to mitigate
any further costs associated with this
"The settlement is not an admission by the
county or Sheriff's Department of any
negligence, civil rights violation or violation
of the Americans with Disabilities Act or any
wrongdoing of any kind in the suicide of
Mario Lopez Jr.," it continues.
"It was a very early settlement — before
any depositions were done," Haddad said
in a phone interview. "I think it was clear to
everyone involved what the facts were,
more or less.
"I think the county wanted to behave
responsibly after the fact and also try to
save some money."
Besides naming the Sheriff's Department as
a defendant, the lawsuit also named Sheriff
Bill Wittman, Tulare County and Deputy
Christopher Landin, who arrested Lopez on

While sheriff's officials haven't disclosed
how Lopez hanged himself, Oakland
attorney Michael Haddad, who represents
Lopez's mother and two adult sons in the
federal lawsuit, said the man used bed
sheets tied to horizontal bars in his cell.
As for why the county settled the case
rather than fight the suit in court, officials
said in a written statement that "after


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Aug. 28, 2010, at his mother's home in
Information provided by Haddad states
that Lopez, 45, suffered from depression
and mental illness for most of his life and
had lived with his mother for about 10
The deputy's report states that Lopez's
mother, Elida Lopez, called 911. After he
arrived, she told him that her son had
threatened her and put a knife to his head,
threatening to kill himself.
Landin described going into the house with
his gun drawn and hearing Mario Lopez
say, "I'm going to [expletive] die and you're
not going to stop me!"
He wrote that he found Lopez sitting on a
couch with a folding knife
at his head but persuaded the man to put
it down. Landin said he then took Lopez
into custody.
"Instead of taking Lopez to the hospital, as
his mother repeatedly requested, Landin
arrested him and took him to the Tulare
County jail to be charged with a thirdstrike crime for allegedly threatening his
mother," Haddad states in an email to the

time of the arrest is at variance with what
she is saying now," states one of the
responses from the Sheriff's Department.
In a copy of the arrest report filed with the
county court, Landin claims that Elida
Lopez told him that her son had been
hospitalized for 72-hour mental health
evaluations before and that the evaluations
"don't do anything but make Lopez more
angry." She stated that she was "scared
when he got out of the hospital," the report
Haddad claims that Landin promised Elida
Lopez he would take her son to a hospital
to be evaluated, not jail, but the deputy's
report says he told the woman that he
would take her son to jail.
"The arresting deputy ... acted
appropriately," according to the sheriff's
The report continues that Landin told jail
staff that Mario Lopez had made "suicidal
statements" and suggested that somebody

County officials didn't provide anybody to
be interviewed about the Lopez family's
claims and only responded in writting to
"The information given by the mother at the


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be called to speak with the man about his
mental health. Landin also called Tulare
County Mental Health to advise officials
there about Mario Lopez and to let them
know he was in custody, the report
In the lawsuit, Mario Lopez's family claims
that he was arrested without probable
cause because Landin was aware of his
psychiatric problems. It goes on to say the
man should never have been charged with
a crime or held in jail, but rather he should
have been taken to a hospital.
"Lopez's serious mental illness and suicide
risk were apparent throughout his three
months in jail and he had numerous safety
cell placements, some lasting several
days," Haddad said.
Tulare County Superior Court records show
that Lopez's arraignment on a charge of
making criminal threats was delayed five
times in August and September 2010
because he wasn't in court. Three of those
times, the records state that he wasn't
transported from jail "due to medical
reasons" and one states that he was "in a
safety cell."

he was removed from a safety cell and
returned to the Main Jail's general
"While Lopez waited for placement, jail
staff continued to withhold proper care and t
reatment for his persistent suicidality, and
he continued his downward spiral," the
lawyer said.
Among the lawsuit's claims:
ª County officials acted maliciously in filing
a criminal charge against Mario Lopez and
misinformation about the case was
provided to county prosecutors.
ª Jail officials failed to properly assess and
classify Lopez based on his mental health
status and suicide risk.
ª Lopez wasn't on suicide watch or other
suicide precautions when he died.
ª Jail officials denied Lopez proper
psychiatric care and treatment.

At the request of his defense attorney,
Lopez underwent a mental health
evaluation, but the findings were sealed in
county court records. In October 2010,
Lopez was determined not competent to
stand trial.
Haddad said arrangements were being
made to send Lopez to a state psychiatric
facility when he killed himself -†hours after


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"... they knew or must have known that his
condition was worsening, that he required
immediate intervention, hospitalization and
a higher level of care and protection than
was offered at the Tulare County jails,"
states the lawsuit, which accuses the county
of violating Lopez's constitutional rights and
the Americans with Disabilities Act, as his
mental health issues were disabilities.
Sheriff's officials said mental health
treatment is available to county inmates,
but their statement didn't specify if Lopez
received any.
Lopez was placed in a safety cell at times
while he was in custody, and "when he
became reoriented, he asked to be
returned and was appropriately returned,"
the sheriff's statement continues.
"Prior to his suicide, the mental health
worker evaluated him, determined that he
was reoriented and he was returned to
housing. Safety cells — which are used for
inmates who pose a threat to their own
safety or the safety of others — may be
lawfully utilized only for temporary housing
during this type of crisis and are not legally
appropriate for permanent housing needs."

family's legal bills on top of any money
awarded by a jury.
Sheriff's officials say the $1 million payment
to Lopez's family will be covered by
When asked if Lopez's death triggered any
changes in training or procedures at the
county's jails or among deputies, officials
said in their written statement that "sheriff's
deputies have been provided ongoing
training in crisis intervention, before and
after the incident, to assist them in
identifying behavior which is as a result of a
mental condition."


The department also denied providing
misinformation about Lopez to prosecutors.
Elida Lopez declined to be interviewed.
The Lopez family's lawsuit didn't specify a
dollar amount sought from the county.
Haddad noted that because this was a civil
rights violation claim, if the county had lost
in court, it could have had to pay Lopez


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