Jury Returns $1.55M Verdict for Failure to Prevent Jail Inmate's Suicide
Originally published in the New York Law Journal, an ALM Media publication, on June 21, 2018.
By: Charles ToutantThe family of a man who killed himself while being held in the Ocean County Jail was awarded a $1.55 million verdict Wednesday in a suit claiming jail administrators failed to follow their own suicide-prevention policy. The jury found that Ocean County was 60 percent liable for the death of Kenneth Conforti, and a private health care contractor, Correctional Health Services, was 40 percent liable. The jury’s apportionment of fault brings the county’s payout to $930,000, though Correctional Health Services entered into a confidential settlement in the case before trial. There were 63 attempts at suicide or self-injury in the Ocean County Jail between 2005 and 2015, said Brick attorney Donald Burke Jr., who brought the case with his father, Donald Burke. The suit asserted that the number of incidents and the lack of effort to address those incidents through training and supervision “reflect a deliberate indifference by defendant managers and policymakers” at the jail. The jury returned its verdict after hearing from an expert witness for the plaintiff, former New York City Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn, that the suicide rate at the Ocean County Jail was higher than in the New York City jail system, according to Burke Jr. The suit was brought on behalf of Conforti’s wife, Carol Ann Conforti, individually and as administrator of his estate. The couple also has a 17-year-old son who is deaf and has Down syndrome. The jury awarded $150,000 on a wrongful death claim, and $1.4 million on a survivorship claim, following a seven-day trial before Superior Court Judge James Den Uyl. According to the suit, Conforti was first placed in the Ocean County Jail on Sept. 8, 2010, after he was charged with violating a restraining order at his wife’s home. At the time, he was in extreme pain due to a back injury that was treated with a rod and screws in his spine, and he also was a binge drinker, and felt feelings of hopelessness due to marital problems, the suit claimed. An intake evaluation by Correctional Health Services took note of his back injury and drinking problem, and placed him in the jail’s medical unit for evaluation. After two days, he was released into the general jail population, but with several accommodations—a physician’s order provided him with an extra mattress and pain medication, and said he could not be assigned to work or to sleep in a top bunk. He was released from jail after staying six days. Conforti was arrested again on Oct. 13, 2010, again at his wife’s home, and was charged with burglary. He was again placed in the Ocean County Jail, and evaluated by Correction Health Services, but this time his intake was “completed in a vastly different manner” than the previous one, the suit said. His health assessment did not address his alcohol dependency, his prior spinal surgery or his mental health, the estate claimed. He was not provided with medication, had no restrictions on activities, and was placed in a single-bunk cell that was already occupied by an inmate, leaving him to sleep on the floor of the cell. He was unable to sleep, and when he requested treatment for his back pain, an employee of Correctional Health Services told him to self-medicate with Motrin or Tylenol that he could get from the jail commissary, according to the suit. The Ocean County Jail had a detailed suicide-prevention policy, with a long list of factors for identifying at-risk inmates, such as loss of appetite, general anxiety, self-pity, giving away possessions, and sudden changes in behavior. Conforti displayed many of those factors but was never referred to the jail’s medical staff as a suicide risk, the suit alleged, claiming that the failure to provide him proper medical care demonstrated indifference and negligence. On Oct. 20, 2010, Conforti was alone in his cell while his cellmate was elsewhere. A guard made hourly health and welfare checks on him, which violates the suicide prevention policy’s proscription on systematic patrols, the suit claimed—the policy said patrols at irregular intervals would hinder an inmate’s efforts to time the guard. At 1 p.m., an inmate found Conforti hanging by the neck from a light fixture. He was declared dead a short time later. The county, which made no pretrial offer, maintained that it was not at fault in Conforti’s death, said Burke Jr. The county also asserted that jail personnel did not have access to records from Conforti’s prior period of incarceration when he made his second visit, and thus didn’t know of his medical history. “With proper training and procedures and protocols that eliminate the opportunity for suicides in county jails, the number of suicides can be reduced to almost zero,” Burke Jr. said in a statement. “We’re hopeful that this brings attention to the problem so that effective means will be taken to make sure this doesn’t happen to someone else.” The county was represented by MaryJane Lidaka of Berry, Sahradnik, Kotzas & Benson in Toms River, who did not return a call about the verdict. Ocean County counsel John Sahradnik, of the same firm, also did not return a call.