Wednesday, November 18, 2015
County Not Liable in Death of Mentally Ill Man—Court of Appeal
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Los Angeles County is not liable for the death of a mentally ill man who hanged himself in his jail cell, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
In a 2-1 decision, the court affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Randolph Rogers’s grant of summary judgment in an action brought by the family of David Geary. Justice Judith Ashmann-Gerst authored the unpublished opinion, which was joined by Justice Victoria Chavez, while Presiding Justice Roger Boren dissented.
The plaintiffs contended that the county was liable under Government Code §845.6, which holds a custodial employee, and the employing agency, liable for failing to take reasonable action to summon medical care for a prisoner when the employee “knows or has reason to know that the prisoner is in need of immediate medical care.”
Geary hanged himself at Palmdale Station Jail on the morning of March 18, 2011, a few hours after being booked on charges of spousal abuse and vandalism. His wife said he had been suffering from depression and extreme anxiety because of a decade-long employment dispute, and that he had attacked her while she was driving him home from the hospital, where sheriff’s deputies had taken him after he ransacked their house searching for more pills after consuming an unknown amount of sedatives and anti-anxiety medication.
In moving for summary judgment, the county argued that jail personnel did not know, and had no reason to know, that Geary needed immediate care. He had been given a “suicide blanket”—made of stiff material that cannot be fashioned into a noose—and was checked several times by jail personnel, who found him to be communicative and cooperative and not morose or threatening, the county said.
Rogers, in granting summary judgment, said it was beyond dispute that county personnel had no reason to know that Geary needed immediate medical attention.
Ashmann-Gerst, writing for the Court of Appeal, agreed.
Geary, the justice noted, had repeatedly insisted that he was fine and had no intention of hurting himself. Ashmann-Gerst also pointed out that Geary was given a medical examination before being booked, and that the doctors found no reason why he could not be booked into the jail.
“We are satisfied that the County met its burden of showing there was no evidence to satisfy the statutory element that employees knew or should have known that David was in need of immediate medical care,” shifting the burden to the plaintiffs to produce substantial evidence to the contrary, the justice wrote.
While the plaintiffs were able to demonstrate the events that occurred before Geary was booked, and also produced a medical screening form in connection with his booking, confirming that he was a suicide risk who took medication for depression and anxiety, that evidence did not establish that he “was in need of immediate psychiatric care during the six or so hours he was in jail,” the jurist emphasized.
Boren, in dissent, noted that the Sheriff’s Department had been notified by Geary’s sister that he had said he intended to kill himself following the violent incident with his wife in the car, and that his wife had told deputies of a conversation in which he referred to an earlier suicide attempt and said the next time he was “going to do it right.”
The department, however, never informed medical staff that Geary intended to kill himself, the presiding justice noted.
While his demeanor and statements at the jail “strongly weigh in favor of a finding of no liability,” Boren argued, summary judgment should have been denied on the basis of facts indicating “that the County likely had reason to know that [Geary] was suicidal and in need of immediate medical care.”
The case is Geary v. County of Los Angeles, B254493.
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