Can a Georgia County Sheriff Be Liable for Failure to Prevent the Suicide of an Inmate?

Can a County Police Officer be held liable for failing to prevent the suicide of an inmate under his custody?  That is the interesting question in the case below, which was argued before the Georgia Supreme Court this week. Below is the Court’s summary of the case. It gives you some of the pertinent facts and then a synopsis of the arguments and positions of both sides in the case. For court watchers and trial junkies this is a helpful tool provided by the Court (presumably written by one of the Court’s clerks;  I did not write it) to be able to follow along in oral argument.  By the way, the Georgia Supreme Court’s oral arguments all can be viewed through their livestreaming capability found on its website. 
And if you can’t catch them live, the arguments are taped and available for your leisure viewing on the website, as well.
Pearce v. Tucker will be a case I’ll be watching as it turns on the old “discretionary v. ministerial” argument trap that really needs to be abolished in favor of including all such claims against counties as part of the Georgia Tort Claims Act. This would give this area law the predictably it desperately needs.  Hopefully, the Georgia Legislature will address that one day. In the meantime, every time there is a case against a county employee, like the one below, the Court must go through this time-worn analysis  of whether the employee’s conduct was discretionary, for which the employee has immunity, or whether it was ministerial, for which the employee does not have immunity.  Stay tuned. Should be interesting.
The appeal in this case stems from a lawsuit filed by a woman against a Glynn County
police officer after her husband was arrested and committed suicide in a holding cell. While the
trial court denied the officer’s motion asking for a judgment in his favor and ruled that the case
could proceed to a jury trial, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, ruling that the
case could not proceed against the officer.
Christopher Pearce, 38, was married and had five children. According to his wife, Tammy, he was the choir leader and taught Sunday school at their church, People’s Liberty
Baptist Church, where the pastor was Rev. Hugh Harrison. According to the evidence, Pearce
suffered from major depressive disorder. On Oct. 26, 2008, Harrison noticed something seemed
to be bothering Pearce during church. As Pearce left that day, he told the pastor, “You have been
a good friend,” which Harrison said struck him as odd. Later that night, Pearce rang the doorbell
at Harrison’s home. Harrison saw Pearce was holding a gun and had his wife call 911 while he
retrieved and loaded his own gun. Harrison’s wife told the 911 dispatcher that Pearce had a gun
and was possibly on medication. Glynn County Police Officer Henry Tucker and another officer
arrived at the Harrison’s home as Pearce was walking down Harrison’s driveway with his gun
tucked in the back of his waistband. The officers drew their weapons and on their orders, Pearce
put up his hands and got down on his knees, and the officers took his gun.
After handcuffing Pearce and putting him in the patrol car, Pearce said little and had a blank look on his face. His silence and “weird look” struck Officer Tucker as odd. Before leaving the Harrisons’s home, the
other officer retrieved Pearce’s driver’s license, which was wrapped in two notes that said:
“Tammy and Kids, No [sic] your fault. I love you and always will,” and “To [sic] much PAIN.
To [sic] much RIDICULE. NO UNDERSTANDING. NO MORE PAIN. Forgive me! Chris.”
The other officer saw the notes, but it is unclear whether Tucker did, and the other officer later
testified he did not perceive them as suicide notes. Once at police headquarters, Tucker placed
Pearce in a temporary holding cell that was monitored by a video camera. Tucker later admitted
that although he completed a required property receipt for Pearce’s personal property, he forgot
to fill out a medical assessment form attached to it that requires the booking officer to “fill out
the screening form noting and inquiring as to:” the detainee’s health, medication that he’s taking,
and his behavior, including his “mental status.” Tucker later testified, however, that he did not
believe Pearce was in any danger of hurting himself. About 21 minutes after leaving Pearce in
the holding cell, the other officer found Pearce slumped in the corner of his cell and blue in the
face. Tucker performed CPR until emergency medical personnel arrived, but he was later
pronounced dead at the hospital. Surveillance footage of the holding cell showed that Pearce had
committed suicide by tying his socks together and hanging himself from a door hinge.
Pearce’s widow filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Tucker, alleging that Tucker had
been negligent for not removing her husband’s socks. He filed a motion asking the court for
“summary judgment” in his favor on the ground that official immunity protects him from being
sued. (A judge grants summary judgment after determining a jury trial is not necessary because
the facts are undisputed and the law falls squarely on the side of one of the parties.) Tucker
argued that official immunity applies because deciding whether to remove Pearce’s socks was a
“discretionary” act, requiring judgment and personal deliberation, as opposed to a “ministerial”
act, requiring merely the execution of a simple, specific duty. Under the doctrine of official
immunity, public officials are afforded greater immunity from liability when they are faced with
a situation that requires them to make a judgment call and less protection when they are
performing simple, automatic tasks governed by clear rules. In response, Pearce’s widow agreed
that removing her husband’s socks was a discretionary act, but that summary judgment was still
inappropriate because the requirement to perform a medical screening was a ministerial function.
The trial court agreed and denied Tucker’s motion, finding that there was evidence the lack of a
medical screening was the cause of Pearce’s suicide, and that a jury should decide whether a
properly conducted health assessment would have revealed Pearce’s intent to kill himself. On
appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision, quoting the standard from its 2001 decision
in Dry Storage Corp. v. Piscopo, which states: “Generally, suicide is an unforeseeable
intervening cause of death which absolves the [wrongdoer] of liability.” However, there is an
exception to the general rule if the so-called wrongdoer’s act causes the party to “kill himself
during a rage or frenzy.” The Court of Appeals ruled that there was no evidence Pearce was in a
rage or frenzy, so the general rule, not the exception, applies and there is no evidence Pearce
would have been unable to commit suicide if Tucker had medically screened him before placing
him in the cell. His widow’s argument that the screening would have revealed Pearce was a
suicide risk was “purely speculative,” the appellate court ruled. Tammy Pearce now appeals to
the state Supreme Court, which has asked the parties to answer two questions: Did the Court of
Appeals err in applying the “general rule” that suicide is an unforeseeable intervening cause of
death, even though there is a special relationship between an officer and his prisoner? Did it err
in reversing the trial court’s denial of summary judgment to Tucker? The issue here is whether
Tucker’s failure to medically screen Pearce was the direct cause of his suicide or whether the
suicide was an unforeseeable act not caused by Tucker’s failure to act.
Tammy Pearce’s attorneys argue that had Tucker followed required procedure
and conducted the medical screening, he would have had to specifically ask Pearce
about his mental state and learned about the medications he had been taking for years for major
depression. Furthermore, given that Pearce had already turned over two suicide notes to the
officers, the inference is he would have told them of his suicidal intent. As the other officer
testified, suicidal inmates usually admit they are suicidal. The Court of Appeals erred in applying
the “general rule” that suicide is an unforeseeable intervening cause of death because that rule
does not apply when a special relationship exists, such as between an officer and his prisoner,
that creates a duty to prevent the suicide, the attorneys argue. “There are two types of wrongful
death suicide cases:  direct cause and failure to prevent, which are judged under different
standards that have been accepted by Georgia Courts,” the attorneys argue in briefs. “Without a
doubt, this is a failure to prevent case.” Here, there is no allegation that Tucker took any action
that caused Pearce to actually become suicidal. In fact, Pearce was already in a suicidal state
when he was arrested. Therefore it makes no sense to analyze the case to see if Tucker caused
Pearce to go into a suicidal “rage or frenzy.” Rather, it should be analyzed on a failure to prevent
standard because that is the alleged wrongdoing and a special relationship existed between
Tucker and Pearce. The Court of Appeals muddled the distinction between the two types of cases
by incorrectly applying the direct cause “general rule” as opposed to the
failure to prevent standard. “The Court here has an opportunity to clarify this rather murky area of law simply by stating the correct rule of law in this case” and rejecting failure to prevent cases that misapplied the ruling in Dry Storage Corp.  In its 1988 decision in Brandvain v. Ridgeview Institute, Inc., the Court of Appeals addressed whether suicide, as an intentional self-destructive act, breaks the causal chain against an accused wrongdoer as a matter of law. “In holding that suicide is not an intervening act as a matter of law, the court reasoned that a [wrongdoer] with a duty to prevent a suicide could be liable if the suicide was reasonably foreseeable,” the attorneys argue.  “Accordingly, suicide is not an unforeseeable intervening act as a matter of law in failure to prevent cases.” The Court of Appeals was wrong to reverse the trial court’s denial of Tucker’s motion for summary judgment because jury questions remain when analyzing this case under the failure to prevent standard. Furthermore, the court was wrong to say that Tammy Pearce’s claims were speculative. Pearce’s suicide was a foreseeable harm that Tucker had a duty to prevent. A jury should decide whether Pearce’s suicide would have been prevented if Tucker had conducted the screening.  Tucker’s attorneys point out there is another exception to the general rule that a suicide is an “intervening act” which breaks the line of causation from the defendant’s wrongful action, such as the officer’s failure to do the medical screening, to a person’s death. That exception is where the defendant and the decedent had a special relationship that placed a duty on the defendant to use reasonable care and where the suicide is reasonably foreseeable to the defendant. The Court of Appeals correctly reversed the denial of summary judgment because there is no evidence that Tucker’s failure to perform a medical screening caused the suicide. As the appellate court correctly noted, “The plaintiff’s argument that during such a screening Pearce would have offered information or acted in a manner indicating that he was a suicide risk…is
purely speculative.” Also, even if Tucker had performed a screening and determined that Pearce
was suicidal, Pearce’s widow assumes that something more would have been done after the
screening that would have prevented her husband’s suicide, such as taking him to the hospital.
But there is no evidence that Pearce could have been transported to a hospital sooner than it took
him to commit suicide. Mrs. Pearce is also incorrect in stating that causation in this case should
turn entirely on whether the suicide was generally foreseeable because, “if causation hinged only
on the general foreseeability of a suicide, then an officer like Tucker would be strictly liable for
any detainee’s suicide so long as there was any reason to believe that the detainee was suicidal,”
the attorneys argue. “Here there is no evidence that Pearce’s suicide was a foreseeable result of
the specific alleged negligence–i.e., the failure to perform a medical screening.” Much of Mrs.
Pearce’s argument about foreseeability rests on the content of the “suicide notes.” “But there is
no evidence that Officer Tucker ever read those notes.” Finally, although the Court of Appeals
did not consider whether official immunity applies because it based its ruling on the lack of
causation, summary judgment in favor of Tucker is appropriate because he is protected by
official immunity. Official immunity hinges on whether performing a medical screening was a
“discretionary” or “ministerial” act. “By its inherent nature, a medical screening is a
discretionary function,” Tucker’s attorneys argue. “After all, screening an inmate for medical
and mental health problems requires a police officer to ‘examine the facts, reach reasoned
conclusions, and act on them in a way not specifically directed.’” Therefore, Mrs. Pearce is suing
Tucker for his allegedly negligent failure to perform a discretionary act. “As a result, Officer
Tucker is entitled to official immunity.”
Attorneys for Appellant (Pearce):
Paul Painter, III, W. Richard Deckle
Attorneys for Appellee (Tucker):
Richard Strickland, Steven Blackerby, Aaron Mumford
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