The state House has narrowly given initial approval to a bill to raise the burden of proof in civil suits that result from a suicide in a detention center.
The bill is sponsored by Representative Mike Kelley (R-Lamar), who says right now when an offender commits suicide in a state, city or county jail, prison, juvenile or mental care facility, the threshold of liability in a suit against that facility is too low. “That’s not the city, county or the state taxpayers’ responsibility to compensate that family for a decision that young man or woman made. I feel sorry for that situation, I feel sorry for the family … but it’s not one that the taxpayers need to be put on the dime for.”
Kelley says it should be harder to hold those facilities liable because the way inmates are monitored, a suicide could be over before the attempt is discovered. “Right now the standard, they say checking on an inmate every hour is considered a good standard. That’s a statewide recognized, United States recognized standard. Well, you can commit suicide in less than an hour.”
Kelley wants to raise the burden of proof from negligence to gross negligence. Representative Mike Colona (D-St. Louis), a practicing attorney, says that would set the bar too high.
“In essence, somebody whose actions are so outrageous that they’re extreme. What actions could be so outrageous that they’re extreme? A correctional officer walking by a cell seeing somebody swinging from a sheet, waiting, and that C.O. not cutting them down. That’s extreme.”
Representative Rory Ellinger (D-St. Louis) says he fears the change would lead to an increase in the rate of suicides. “The reason that the number of suicides is falling is because sheriffs don’t want a dead person in their jail. They don’t want a guard who’s negligent. So if a guard falls asleep instead of watching a monitor where the guy’s making a noose and so on, somebody should pay for that.”
Ellinger says if the standard only requires checking on inmates once an hour, perhaps the legislature should consider changing the standard, instead of liability standards.
“In many jails where there are not suicides they don’t let people have bedclothes or clothing that they can hang themselves with, and I think that’s great … why can’t that be the standard?”
The bill received initial approval on a 74-70 roll call vote. One more favorable vote will send it to the Senate.