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They called him “Suicide.” Third Circuit clarifies that the vulnerability to suicide framework does not preclude other types of claims.

July 1, 2017
Palakovic v. Wetzel, 854 F.3d 209 (3d Cir. 2017)

During the decedent’s health assessment at SCI Camp Hill (he had recently been convicted of burglary and sentenced to 16-48 months imprisonment), he admitted to prior suicide attempts, recent acts of self-harm, continuing thoughts of both self-harm and suicide, as well as his plan for how he would commit suicide. The decedent was diagnosed with multiple serious disorders and was given the lowest stability rating available to a prisoner in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections system. After being transferred to SCI Cresson, the decedent allegedly reported feeling depressed and acknowledged continuing suicidal thoughts, as well as his desire to die, to the point where he was given the prison nickname “Suicide.” However, no comprehensive suicide risk assessment was performed, and he received no psychological counseling, drug and/or alcohol counseling, or group therapy. All mental health interviews were conducted through the cell door of his solitary confinement unit, where he did multiple 30-day stints. The decedent committed suicide on July 16, 2012, and the executors of his estate filed suit under the Eighth Amendment, alleging that all of the defendants had been deliberately indifferent to both the inhumane conditions that the decedent experienced while in solitary confinement and to his serious medical need for mental health care. The District Court entered a memorandum opinion and order, rejecting the executors’ arguments and concluding that, because the case involved a prison suicide, the “vulnerability to suicide” legal framework applied. On appeal, the Third Circuit clarified that the “vulnerability to suicide” framework applies when a plaintiff seeks to hold prison officials accountable for failing to prevent a prison suicide, but it does not preclude other types of claims, even when those claims also relate to an individual who committed suicide while in prison. This decision highlights the increasing complexity of litigating prison suicide cases, especially those involving solitary confinement. 


Case Law Alerts, 3rd Quarter, July 2017

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