SCOTUS Case, Jail Suicide; Taylor v. Barkes, 575 U.S.__ (2015).
This is an interesting per curiam opinion by the United States Supreme Court addressing qualified immunity in the jail suicide context. As those who follow the Supreme Court know, this Court has not been very plaintiff-friendly for QI issues. This case is no exception, but I think it’s an important case to consider for framing the issue going forward. Jail suicides, after all, are not-so-uncommon, and frankly prisons and jails should have policies in place to ensure that they do not occur. Knowing of their prevalence, I think it’s certainly fair to say that failure to have policies in place, today, would constitute deliberate indifference to the issue.
First, this decedent, Barkes hung himself in 2004. This is not a recent death. When Barkes was admitted into the jail, he was assessed by a nurse using a particular protocol that was then in place but did not comply with the latest National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) standards. The theory of liability pursued by the plaintiffs was that the institution failed to supervise and monitor the private contractor (nurse) that provided medical treatment, including the intake screening.
So, the two questions in any QI inquiry are: 1) did plaintiff suffer deprivation of right, and 2) was that right “clearly established” at time of the alleged misconduct? A court may answer these two questions in either order. Here, SCOTUS chose to answer Question #2 first and concluded that in November 2004, it was not established that the institutions intake system, as it pertained to mentally ill inmates, was unconstitutional. In light of the work that I’ve done on this issue, I have to think that there would have been a different result had the inmate died in 2015 under these conditions. In South Carolina, for example, we have a state court order finding the conditions in the South Carolina Department of Corrections fall well below constitutional requirements. See T.R., P.R. et al. v. SCDC and Byars, C/A: 2005-CP-40-2925 (filed January 8, 2014). The takeaway, I think, is this: that in analyzing a prospective case of this nature, it is best to fully document your standard of care at the time of the death at the earliest point in the case. Also, these cases are still worthy of being pursued, despite this opinion.