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Liability for suicide at jail or prison – only for deliberate indifference


June 28, 2013 by Tom Roberts, Esq.

Q.  Can I sue the jail or prison for the suicide death of a pretrial detainee or inmate?

A.  You can sue the official who was deliberately indifferent to the known or obvious risk of suicide.

The Constitution’s due process clause guarantees a pre‐trial detainee the right to adequate medical care where the state’s failure to provide such care would amount to “deliberate indifference” to a serious medical need. Buffington v Baltimore County, 913 F2d 113, 119‐120 (4th Cir. 1990). The analysis is the same for inmates. In Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 97 S. Ct. 285, 50 L. Ed. 2d 251 (1976), the Supreme Court held that prison officials violate the Eighth Amendment when they are deliberately indifferent to serious medical needs of prisoners.  More narrowly, the court has recognized that where officials know or have reason to know that a pre‐trial detainee is on the verge of suicide or that suicide was imminent, that the psychological condition can constitute the kind of serious medical need to which state officials must under the due process clause, not be deliberately indifferent. Id. However custodial officials cannot be placed in the position of guaranteeing that inmates will not commit suicide, but if the official knows or should know of the particular vulnerability to suicide of an inmate, the fourteenth amendment imposes a duty not to act with “reckless indifference” to the risk. Id. citing Colburn v. Upper Darby Township, 838 F.2d 663, 669 (3d Cir. 1988). Deliberate indifference requires a showing of more than mere negligence (or even gross negligence) but less than purposeful infliction of harm. In Woodward v. Corr. Med. Servs of Ill, Inc., 368 F.3d 917, 926‐927 (7th Cir. Ill. 2004), the court found that with knowledge of suicide ideation placing inmate in cell with objects used to hang himself permits jury to find deliberate indifference.

Probably the biggest obstacle to such a suit however is that the federal courts have given judges too much discretion to prevent litigants from discovering what happens in secret.  In what has become a substantial shift and block to litigation, the Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009) extended the “plausibility standard” first articulated in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) to all civil pleadings.    In order to satisfy Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 8(a)’s requirement, the court requires that the complaint state a “plausible claim.”   This new standard supplants the prior precedent that provided that a pleading should not be dismissed “unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim.”  Now judges, most of whom come from a law enforcement or prosecutorial or defense backgrounds, utilize their own “judicial experience and common sense” to determine whether claimants have pled facts and not merely conclusory allegations that “nudge [] their claim across the line from conceivable to plausible.”

Practice Issues:


If one gets past these obstacles the final hurdle is potential bias in favor of the officials “protecting” society from criminals.


The materials are prepared for information purposes only.  The materials are not legal advice.  You should not act upon the information without seeking the advice of an attorney.  Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship.

Thomas H. Roberts, Esq.
Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, P.C.
105 S. 1st Street
Richmond, Virginia 23219
(804) 783-2000
(804) 783-2105 Fax


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