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Inmate Wrongful Deaths: Suing for Neglect or Abuse in Jail or Prison

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

Family members of inmates who die while serving time due to abuse or neglect can sue for wrongful death. Who can family members sue and what damages can be recovered? The answers to these question depend on the type of institution where the inmate was held, the manner of death, and certain statutory considerations.

Systems of incarceration are deliberately confusing and you will need an attorney. But there are some basics to understand in advance of a consultation that will help you understand your legal options. Your lawyer will ultimately help you determine the best course of action.

Basic Determinations for a Wrongful Death Case

Before bringing a wrongful death case, you should consider the following variables:

  • Jail or Prison? The first thing you must figure out is whether your relative was in prison or in jail. Prisons house inmates found guilty of felonies, or serious crimes subject to a year of incarceration or more. Jails generally house misdemeanor offenders and people charged with crimes awaiting trial.

  • State or Federal Prison? Some criminal acts are federal offenses only and some are both state and federal. Was your relative held in a state or federal penitentiary?

  • Public or Private? When authorities arrest someone, that person is their responsibility. The police and jail -- or possibly prison, down the line -- must keep the people in custody safe. As such, a city, county, state, or the federal government may be held liable for a wrongful death during incarceration. But administration and management of many American prisons is handled by private companies - either entirely or in part. Some institutions contract out prisoner medical services, for example, and in cases where medical neglect is alleged it makes sense to sue the private contractor as well.

  • Abuse or Neglect? Abuse is when a prisoner dies due to excessive use of force by authorities. Neglect is when authorities fail to take the necessary steps to protect an inmate -- medically, mentally, physically, or emotionally. For example, in the case of a suicide it may still be possible to recover for failure to adequately monitor an inmate. The incarcerating institution is responsible for keeping inmates safe from each other and even themselves.

Recoverable Damages

Details of your case will determine what damages are available in a particular wrongful death matter. Generally, inmates' family members may recover compensatory damages, although there are limitations on this in some states. Punitive damages are hard to prove in inmate wrongful death matter but they are not barred.

Meet With a Lawyer ASAP

There are statutory limitations on how much time you have to file suit for wrongful death. Although it is difficult to think about finding a lawyer when someone you love has just died, acting fast is the only way to ensure that your rights are preserved.

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