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Liability of the San Diego County Jail System for Wrongful Death

Over the past year, San Diego County has made national news and not for a good reason. The county jail system has been highlighted as having one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.

Relying on a database implemented by the Huffington Post, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported in July that more than 800 people have died in U.S. jails in the past year, 128 of which were in California, with 15 in San Diego County.

The issue of suicide in the jail system brings about an important discussion about wrongful death and the liability of a municipality to an inmate who dies in its custody. Wrongful death lawsuits are commonly filed in situations when someone dies in police custody. A recent settlement in Los Angeles County resulted in a $2.85 million payment to the family of a man who died while being booked into the jail.

Why Jails Are Liable For the Wrongful Death of Inmates

When a person is taken into custody by law enforcement, that person is no longer free to do as they wish. This means they must follow the orders of the arresting officer as well as the jail facility staff where they are taken. However, when someone loses their freedom, their well-being falls into the hands of the people who take that freedom.

A person in custody must be cared for. Their health and well-being must be a high priority for jail staff. If staff know (or should know) of a possible health issue with an inmate, they are mandated to monitor and treat such issue. As an example, an inmate who falls and breaks their ankle must be taken to the hospital where their ankle can be set in a cast to heal.

However, not all health problems are as obvious as a broken ankle, but every type of illness still falls under the same “duty of care” umbrella. Liability falls with the jail when they fail to treat an illness. There are protocols that must be followed when an inmate is suspected of having a mental illness. Failure to follow these protocols can make the jail staff liable if something should happen as a result of their negligence.

Wrongful Death Awards and Settlements from San Diego County

Some wrongful death lawsuits have resulted in large awards or settlements.

  • $3 million verdict – In January 2015, a federal judge upheld a $3 million verdict in the case of an inmate who died from an asthma attack that was brought on from heroin withdrawal. The jury found the jail staff failed to monitor his health problems which could have prevented the death.
  • $2.3 million settlement – In August 2016, San Diego County agreed to pay $2.3 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a man who died in jail custody. The inmate died of a drug overdose after swallowing a bag of methamphetamine. Despite the inmate showing signs of overdose he was not given medical treatment.

These are just two examples of wrongful death lawsuits from San Diego County. This is only a small sample of similar lawsuits filed against municipalities, not only in the state of California but throughout the rest of the United States.

Does Someone Have to Die For Liability to Apply

For a wrongful death claim to be made, a death must occur. However, jail staff can still be liable for harm even if a death does not occur. This would fall under a general negligence claim and accounts for an even larger number of lawsuits than those filed for actual deaths.

Summing It Up

Liability falls to someone who fails to protect someone they are obligated to. This includes police and jail guards who are responsible for the health and well-being of anyone they take into custody. If you or someone you know has been injured or killed while in custody, you should contact a personal injury attorney immediately to determine what you are entitled to.


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