State’s top court upholds $1.5M negligence verdict against jail for inmate’s suicide

By: - August 10, 2023 4:53 pm

County officials argued they could claim immunity under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, but the justices said trial testimony demonstrated negligence on the county’s part outside of the parameters of that law.

After an incarcerated man with a documented risk of suicide took his life at the Ocean County Jail in 2010, officials there tried to dodge his widow’s lawsuit by claiming immunity under a state law meant to protect public entities from negligence claims.

Capping 13 years of litigation, the New Jersey Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the $1.5 million verdict a jury ordered county officials and the jail’s private medical provider to jointly pay.

The justices agreed that county officials could claim immunity under specific provisions of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act that protect public entities and employees for failing to examine, diagnose, or treat someone’s mental illness or recognize that their condition could imperil themselves or others.

Still, testimony during a trial in which Kenneth Conforti’s widow sought to hold the jail accountable for his death demonstrated negligence on the county’s part outside of those parameters, Justice Rachel Wainer Apter wrote.

“There was evidence from which a jury could find negligence without reference to any immunized conduct,” she wrote.

Conforti was jailed in September 2010 for violating a restraining order, and medical and jail staff at that time properly flagged mental health concerns, his alcohol dependence, and chronic back pain that led a jail doctor to prescribe medication and an extra mattress, according to the ruling.

But when he returned to jail the following month for another restraining order violation, a nurse failed to check records from his previous incarceration and took him at his word that he had no problems, Wainer Apter wrote. Conforti was cleared for a general population cell and placed in an occupied one-bunk cell, where he had to sleep on the floor, according to the ruling.

Jail staff then compounded those intake missteps, violating policies intended to prevent suicides and ensure order, according to the ruling.

Guards failed to act when Conforti closed his cell door, which causes the door to automatically lock and trigger a light to alert staff, a corrections expert testified at trial.

The guard tasked with walking the 130-bed unit hourly also failed to make those checks at random times, as policy requires to better thwart suicides, according to the ruling. He also didn’t notice that Conforti had put a sheet over his cell door window, another policy violation, the ruling notes.

While the jail was ordered to preserve surveillance video of that unit that day, officials later told the court it “became unviewable for technological reasons,” according to the ruling.

And an entry on a logbook of guards’ cell checks — made when Conforti’s body was discovered, hours after he wrote a suicide note — was “overwritten or obliterated,” fueling the jury’s suspicion of negligence, according to the ruling.

A corrections expert also testified the jail failed to conduct mortality reviews and revise policies after inmate suicides, according to the ruling.

Justice Rachel Wainer Apter’s decision says trial testimony showed there was negligence on behalf of jail workers that goes beyond immunized conduct. (Amanda Brown for New Jersey Monitor)

The ruling means the county must pay 60% and Correctional Health Services must pay 40% of the $150,000 in damages and $1.4 million for pain and suffering the trial jury ordered.

Justice Douglas Fasciale penned a dissent that Justice Anne Patterson joined.

Fasciale argued that the trial court should have granted county officials’ pretrial request for dismissal because the lawsuit claimed negligence partly on conduct immunized by law. That allowed attorneys for Conforti’s widow to present evidence on immunized conduct, resulting in an unfair trial, he wrote.

Attorney Donald F. Burke, who represents the Conforti family, celebrated the ruling as a win for Conforti’s disabled son, who was 9 years old when his father died.

“We are grateful to the judiciary for recognizing that the jury’s unanimous verdict was firmly based on the Ocean County’s negligence and not on any conduct immunized by the Tort Claims Act,” Burke said. “We are hopeful that attorneys and advocates will not shy away from accepting cases like this one, which mean so much to the families impacted by governmental wrongdoing and are so vital to holding the government accountable.”

Karen Thompson is a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which filed a brief in the case.

The ruling underscores the state’s obligation to protect people who are in their care, she said.

“The big takeaway here is that any prison or jail failure to follow very clear and implemented suicide prevention policies are not behaviors that are immunized by the Tort Claims Act,” Thompson said. “Plain and simple, jails and prisons have to follow their own policies, otherwise they are going to be found liable.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.