Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Court of Appeals affirms verdict in jail suicide case

This case arises from a suicide at the Putnam County Jail. The inmate's family sued Americor, Inc., which had responsibility for the inmates, on the basis that Americor disregarded an excessive risk to Spencer Sinkov's safety, causing him to hang himself in his jail cell. The Court of Appeals affirms the verdict.

The case is Sinkov v. Americor, Inc., a summary order decided on April 13. Spencer entered the County Jail as a suicide risk. An officer found Spencer hanging from the cell bars by his sweatshirt. A State Corrections Commission report stated that Spencer "had tied the shirt at the top of the front cell bars and sat down." The jury found that he struggled after hanging himself and was alive for a period of time as he tried to alleviate the pressure from the hanging by placing his foot on the bed to raise himself up." This maneuver did not work; Spencer died. Finding that Americor was deliberately indifferent to knowledge that Spencer was a suicide risk, the jury awarded his family $750,000 in damages; as one of the defendants, Americor had to pay $264,000 in damages.

There are few primary issues on appeal. First, Americor says that the jury had no basis to find that it disregarded the suicide risk. But the evidence shows that Spencer answered "yes" to ten questions on the suicide screening form at intake, enough to trigger constant monitoring. The failure to monitor Spencer resulted in his suicide. As Americor knew about New York's minimum standards for detainees who present signs that they are suicide risks, the jury was able to find in favor of Spencer's family. The Second Circuit precedent governing this case is Caiozzo v. Koreman, 581 F.3d 63 (2d Cir. 2009).

Americor also argued that the jury should not have awarded plaintiff $300,000 for conscious pain and suffering. The Court of Appeals (Straub, Sack and Lynch) disagrees. "The jury was entitled to rely on common sense and common experience to conclude that an amateur, improvised hanging is likely to produce a painful death by asphyxiation, and reasonably could have concluded that Sinkov struggled and suffered in the period between when he placed his homemade noose around his neck and when he lost consciousness." As for the $300,000, it does not shock the conscience. Looking at other cases for guidance, the Second Circuit says:

based on the facts of the present case and on a review of pain and suffering awards in other cases, we are satisfied that the jury’s $300,000 award for Sinkov’s conscious pain and suffering was not excessive. See Gonzalez v. N.Y.C. Hous. Auth., 555 N.Y.S.2d 107, 108 (1st Dep’t 1990) (“Asphyxiation by gagging, whether it occurred within minutes or within an hour of the initial assault, is a particularly slow and terrifying way to die and, under the circumstances, we do not find the [$350,000] award for conscious pain and suffering ... to be excessive.”); Rodd v. Luxfer USA Ltd., 709 N.Y.S.2d 93, 94 (2d Dep’t 2000) ($300,000 award for pain and suffering where decedent “suffered severe and massive injuries” from any exploding oxygen tank, but the “period of consciousness was limited in duration”); Filipinas v. Action Auto Leasing, 851 N.Y.S.2d 550, 550 (1st Dep’t 2008) ($750,000 award where decedent was struck in the head by a van’s side mirror, and sustained serious head injuries, but “was heavily medicated and/or sedated” within an hour of the accident).

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