The short answer is yes. But this type of recovery can be a long and uncertain road that will challenge your family while you are going through a difficult time.
Sheriff's departments, like the Madison County Sheriff's Department, or other law enforcement departments running correctional facilities have a duty to provide a safe environment for those that are being housed. That duty extends to inmates who are undergoing the stress and mental anguish of being incarcerated. If you or a loved one has ever been incarcerated, you understand losing your freedom is a stressful situation that can result in mental health issues. It is the duty of the chief law enforcement officer to protect inmates suffering from mental health issues. This is especially true when those being incarcerated identify as having thoughts of harming themselves or others.
If your loved one was killed in the jail, whether from suicide or homicide, recovery is a difficult road. Often times the question of whether you can recover depends on what the correctional facility knew prior to the wrongful death. Did your loved one tell the facility he had thoughts of harming himself? Was he on prescribed medication and deprived of that medication? Was the inmate on suicide watch? If another inmate killed your loved one, did the jail know about the violent propensities of the other inmate?
These wrongful death cases are usually brought for the benefit of the family of the inmate. That means you as the surviving family member own the claim and not the inmate. Under this wrongful death theory, you can allege a negligent action. That is when the jail fail to do something. The cause of action can also fall under what is known as civil rights claims under Section 1983. Under either theory, the goal is to hold the jail liable for the harms and losses.
To determine whether the correctional facility will be held responsible, it Is often necessary to subpoena the records of the jail. Most in-processing of inmates require screenings which includes questions about homicidal or suicidal thoughts. In addition, the questionnaires ask about depression and other mental health disorders. Once identified, it is incumbent on the jail to protect that inmate from himself or the general population.
Determining whether a death in a jail constitutes a wrongful death claim can and usually is very fact intensive. It will require an investigation which includes interviewing witnesses, including other inmates, reviewing many documents, sending requests for video, and often times filing a lawsuit for wrongful death in order to subpoena more records and documents.
During the investigation, you'll want to determine whether the department breached any of its own protocols or rules. For instance, some correctional facilities have an observation rule for any inmate who is under “suicide watch.” If the correctional officer on duty fails to observe the inmate during the prescribed interval, the jail can be liable. Many jails have video recordings in common areas. These recordings may not show the death, but they can show what the jail employees were doing during the time before, during, and after the death. This is invaluable evidence to show neglect on the part of the jail. However, this video evidence can oftentimes be lost. It is necessary for the investigating lawyer to send a preservation letter to save this evidence. Time is of the essence for that purpose.
Once the evidence is gathered during the investigation, the lawyer handling the case will determine whether any breach of the correctional facility duties occurred. Assuming a breach of the standard of care is found, the correctional facility may want to talk settlement rather than face a jury. In our experience, the correctional facility and its employees will deny until completely boxed in by the evidence.
Our law firm has represented several families who have lost loved ones due to the actions of law enforcement officials or correctional facilities. These are very difficult cases because you are suing the government and its employees. However, these wrongful death cases can lead to a recovery for the family. The sooner the investigation starts; the more evidence is preserved. The more evidence that is preserved, the more likely a recovery will be had.