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Third Circuit Clarifies Law on Prison Suicides

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Aaron Hernandez died in prison on Wednesday, having taken his own life. The former New England Patriots tight end's suicide came as he was serving a life sentence for murdering Odin Lloyd, the boyfriend of his fiancee's sister, and just days after he had been acquitted in another double murder case.

Hernandez's may be one of the most famous prison suicides, but it's not the only one. Every year, hundreds of inmates kill themselves, making it the leading cause of death in local jails, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Now, the Third Circuit has clarified just when such suicides may be considered violations of the Eighth Amendment.

The Case of Brandon Palakovic

The Third Circuit case, decided last Friday, did not involve Aaron Hernandez, of course. Instead, it arose after the death of Brandon Palakovic, a mentally ill man who committed suicide after regularly being thrown in solitary confinement while imprisoned in Pennsylvania.

Mental health staff in the state prison system were aware of Palakovic's mental disorders and history of attempted suicide, awarding him the lowest possible "stability rating" and placing him on the prison mental health roster.

Yet when Palakovic, who was serving time for burglary, reported feeling depressed and suicidal, no assessment was performed nor counseling given, even as Palakovic earned the nickname "Suicide" within the prison. While at the prison, Palakovic was repeatedly confined to solitary for 30-days at a time.

All of this occurred even as the Department of Justice investigated the prison for failure to provide adequate mental health services and protect inmates from harm.

Eventually, Palakovic killed himself in solitary confinement. He was 23 years old.

The Eighth Amendment and Prison Suicide

Palakovic's parents sued, arguing that the prison officials' deliberate indifference to the prison's inhumane conditions and their son's mental health needs violated his Eighth Amendment rights.

The district court rejected the suit, saying that the Palakovics had not pled facts sufficient to show that their son met the "vulnerability to suicide" legal framework. That three-part test required the parents to show that Palakovic had a particular vulnerability to suicide, that officers knew or should have known of this, and that those officers then "acted with reckless indifference."

But, the Palakovics argued, that standard was inappropriate here. They were not seeking to hold prison officials accountable for their son's suicide, they said, but for the harm they caused him while he was alive.

On appeal, the Third Circuit clarified that its vulnerability to suicide caselaw "applies when a plaintiff seeks to hold prison officials accountable for failing to prevent a prison suicide. It does not, however, preclude other types of claims, even if those claims relate to an individual who committed suicide while in prison."

Here, to the extent Brandon could have brought an Eighth Amendment claim contesting his conditions of confinement while he was alive, his family should not be precluded from doing so because he has passed away.

Facts "More Than Sufficient" to Support Claim

The ruling revives the Palakovics' suit, but the court did not end there. After their suit was initially dismissed, the Palakovics amended their complaint to include the vulnerability to suicide claims. Those too were dismissed.

"If we were to conclude that Brandon's circumstances were insufficient to allege a 'particular vulnerability to suicide,' it is difficult to imagine how any plaintiff could ever succeed in doing so," the court wrote, saying the facts were "more than sufficient" to support the parents' claims.

"When a mentally ill, depressed person has attempted to kill himself multiple times, has engaged in self-harm, declares he has been thinking about killing and harming himself, and has made an actual plan of how he would carry out his own suicide, it cannot be said as a matter of law that the risk of suicide is nothing more than a 'mere possibility,'" the court concluded.

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