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Successfully Suing for an Inmate’s Death is No Ordinary Undertaking

If you’ve been following local news, you’ll see there have been 54 jail deaths in the last five years in Tarrant County. According to data maintained by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, there have been 74 deaths in Tarrant County jail since 2014, and some community leaders have expressed to the Department of Justice that they believe these numbers may be underreported.

Jail Deaths in Tarrant County

You might wonder why jail deaths don’t often result in lawsuits. Lawsuits can be a powerful way to affect change. The primary reason few lawsuits are filed against counties or jails (and why fewer are successful) is sovereign immunity, which shields governments from lawsuits under most circumstances. That doesn’t mean lawsuits can’t be successful. This means you must find the perfect case to use as the driver for change. This article will discuss what it takes to sue for a jail death successfully.

This article is specific to laws in the Fifth Circuit, Texas’s federal circuit.

Wrongful Death in Jail: Understanding “1983 Claims”

42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides the basis for “1983 claims.” A Section 1983 claim is a lawsuit in which an individual can sue the government or government employees acting “under color of state law” for a civil rights violation. Section 1983 doesn’t create any new rights; it merely provides a way to enforce civil rights already established by the U.S. Constitution or other federal laws.

The acts that can give rise to a Section 1983 claim are varied and can include police brutality, excessive force, violations of freedom of speech or assembly, unreasonable search and seizure, excessive bail, racial profiling, and more.

Who can be sued under Section 1983?

Potential defendants under 1983 include police officers, prison guards, judges, public officials, and even private individuals acting on behalf of the state or local government.

Suing a Jail For the Death of a Pretrial Detainee

To establish liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must show:

  1. an official policy (or custom), of which
  2. a policymaker can be charged with actual or constructive knowledge, and
  3. a constitutional violation whose ‘moving force’ is that policy (or custom).

A plaintiff must show that this policy was implemented with “deliberate indifference” to the known or obvious consequences that a constitutional violation would result. A “deliberate indifference” may be shown by a series or pattern of similar violations or a single incident wherein the injury suffered was “highly predictable.”

Under this theory, a jail could be sued for deaths in a jail alleging unconstitutional conditions of confinement such as:

  1. Overcrowding and understaffing of the jail
  2. Failure to properly observe and monitor detainees
  3. Denial of medical care to detainees
  4. Institutionzlition of excessive force by officers against detainees
  5. Maintain a culture of violence in the jail among detainees.

Elements to Prove a Wrongful Death in Jail

Here are the key elements that must typically be established in a Section 1983 action for wrongful death:

  1. Conduct by a Person: The defendant in a Section 1983 lawsuit must be a “person” acting under state or local law. This generally includes government officials, employees, and entities acting in an official capacity.
  2. Acting Under Color of State Law: The defendant must have acted “under color of state law” when the action occurred. This means the actions or behaviors that violated the plaintiff’s rights must be closely related to the defendant’s role as a governmental official or entity.
  3. Deprivation of Rights: The plaintiff must show that they were deprived of a constitutional right or a federal statutory right. This is the core of a Section 1983 claim, and it involves demonstrating that the defendant’s actions or inactions directly led to a violation of rights such as freedom of speech, right to due process, or protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.
  4. Causation: The plaintiff must demonstrate a direct causal link between the defendant’s action and the deprivation of constitutional or federal statutory rights. This means showing that the harm would not have occurred but for the defendant’s conduct.
  5. Damages: Finally, the plaintiff must show that they suffered some harm or damages due to the deprivation of their rights. This can include physical injury, emotional distress, loss of earnings, or other types of damages.
  6. Overcoming Sovereign Immunity: While this is not an element, you will have to overcome sovereign immunity as a practical matter. Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that protects governments and their agencies from being sued without their consent. To successfully bring a Section 1983 claim against certain government officials or entities, plaintiffs must navigate around sovereign immunity issues.

knowledge is power

Types of Claims for Wrongful Death in Jail

The United States Supreme Court has recognized pretrial detainees (inmates held before their cases are resolved, as opposed to inmates who have been sentenced) have both procedural and substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. See Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979). The Fifth Circuit in Flores recognized that pretrial detainee civil rights violations could give rise to two types of claims:

  • episodic-acts-or-omissions claims or
  • conditions-of-confinement claims.

Wrongful Death in Jail: Episodic Claims vs. Condition of Confinement Claims

An episodic-act-or-omission claim “faults specific jail officials for their acts or omissions” for the death. See Shepherd v. Dallas Cnty., 591 F.3d 445, 452 (5th Cir. 1997). By contrast, a conditions-of-confinement challenge is a challenge to the “general conditions, practices, rules, or restrictions of pretrial confinement.” See Estate of Henson v. Wichita Cnty., 795 F.3d 456 (2013). Conditions-of-confinement claims may challenge, for example, the number of bunks per cell, the placement of a detainee in disciplinary segregation, etc. For both claims, a plaintiff has two burdens: to show (1) that a constitutional violation occurred and (2) that a government policy was the moving force behind the violation.

Category Type of Claim Focus Legal Standard Examples
Episodic Acts or Omissions Specific acts or omissions by individuals Actions or failures to act by staff toward detainees Must show intent to harm or reckless disregard for detainee’s rights Denial of medical care for a specific condition, use of excessive force during an interrogation
Conditions of Confinement General conditions or policies affecting detainees Overall conditions or systemic issues within the facility Not reasonably related to a legitimate government objective Overcrowding, lack of sanitation, inadequate general medical care, inadequate facilities

Conditions of Confinement Claims

To prevail on a conditions-of-confinement claim, a plaintiff must show a condition, rule, restriction, or practice or sufficiently extended or pervasive acts or omissions of a jail official – that was not reasonably related to a legitimate government objective – caused the constitutional violation.

Practices that are “sufficiently extended or pervasive, or otherwise typical of extended or pervasive misconduct,” can represent official policy. Showing a pervasive pattern is a heavy burden. See Shepherd v. Dallas County, 591 F.3d 445, 452 (5th Cir. 2009). When the official policymaker knows about misconduct yet allegedly fails to take remedial action, this inaction arguably shows acquiescence to the misconduct, which could be a basis for a jury to decide that it is sufficient to show it was an official policy. See Duvall v. Dallas County, 631 F.3d 203 (5th Cir. 2011).

Episodic Acts or Omissions Claims

While conditions-of-confinement claims challenge the constitutionality of pervasive, systemic policies and customs, episodic-acts-or-omissions claims challenge the constitutionality of the way in which a policy or custom was applied by a jail official in a particular instance.

To establish liability in an episodic-act case under the Fourteenth Amendment, a detainee must show: (1) that the employee violated the pretrial detainee’s clearly established constitutional rights with subjective deliberate indifference and (2) that this violation resulted from a policy or custom adopted and maintained with objective deliberate indifference. For purposes of an episodic-acts-or-omissions claim, a jail official violates a pretrial detainee’s constitutional right to be secure in his basic human needs only when the official had subjective knowledge of a substantial risk of serious harm to the detainee and responded to that risk with deliberate indifference. This standard – deliberate indifference by a jail official to a substantial risk of serious harm – presents a high bar; negligence or even gross negligence is not enough. For example, the Fifth Circuit has established that pretrial detainees have a constitutional right, under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, not to have their serious medical needs met with deliberate indifference on the part of the confining officials. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 103 (1976); Hare v. City of Corinth, 74 F.3d 633, 636 (5th Cir.1996).

Tough cases call for the toughest lawyers.

How to Overcome Sovereign Immunity

The doctrine of sovereign immunity shields a government official from civil liability for damages based upon the performance of discretionary functions if the official’s acts were objectively reasonable in light of the clearly established law. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800. The plaintiff then has the burden ‘to rebut this defense by establishing that the official’s allegedly wrongful conduct violated clearly established law.’ Salas v. Carpenter, 980 F.2d 299, 306 (5th Cir.1992).

Step 1 in Overcoming Sovereign Immunity:

The first step in the qualified immunity analysis is to determine whether the plaintiff has alleged the violation of a clearly established federal constitutional (or federal statutory) right. Hare v. City of Corinth, 135 F.3d 320, 325 (5th Cir.1998)

Step 2 in Overcoming Sovereign Immunity:

If the plaintiff has alleged a violation of federal law as the basis of the claim, the Court must then assess whether the defendant’s conduct was objectively reasonable in light of clearly established law. Hare III, 135 F.3d at 326; Pierce, 117 F.3d at 872. “Clearly established” means that the “contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Anderson, 107 S.Ct. at 3039.

The defendant’s acts are held to be objectively reasonable unless all reasonable officials in the defendant’s circumstances would have then known that the defendant’s conduct violated the United States Constitution or the federal statute as alleged by the plaintiff.

Because qualified immunity turns only upon the objective reasonableness of the defendant’s acts, a particular defendant’s subjective state of mind has no bearing on whether that defendant is entitled to qualified immunity. An official is eligible for qualified immunity even if the official violated another’s constitutional rights.

What happens when you file a lawsuit?

You can expect the county to file a motion for summary judgment based on sovereign immunity, which is often successful at the district court level. If that happens in Texas, it takes a successful appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to get back on track. That is exactly what happened this year in Ford v. Anderson County, Texas, (No. 22-40559) (5th Cir. 2024). This case stemmed from the death of a jail inmate alleging the county, sheriff, and jail doctor failed to treat the inmate’s chronic illness, leading to her death, which was preventable. The district court granted summary judgment based on sovereign immunity and dismissed the claim. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court with regard to several claims raised.

What is the Statute of Limitations to Bring a 1983 Claim in Texas?

In Texas, 1983 claims are subject to a two-year statute of limitations under Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code section 16.003. See Gaylor, 981 F. 2d 254, 257 (5th Cir. 1993)

Wrongful Death in Jail Cases in Texas

If you are the surviving spouse, child, and parent of an individual who died in a jail, it is critical for you to reach out to discuss the matter with an attorney. Ultimately, very high thresholds to obtain relief under Section 1983 means most deaths won’t give rise to a claim. If you believe you may have a claim that arises out of Texas, contact us for a free, no-obligation consultation at 817-203-2220.

Varghese Summersett is a premier criminal defense firm based in Fort Worth, Texas. Our attorneys focus exclusively on criminal law and represent clients charged with crimes at both the state and federal level. We handle everything from DWI to capital murder to white collar crime. Collectively, our attorneys bring together more than 100 years of criminal law experience and have tried more than 550 cases before Texas juries. All of our senior attorneys served as former state or federal prosecutors and four are Board Certified in Criminal law, the highest designation an attorney can reach. We are the firm people turn to when the stakes are high and they are facing the biggest problem in their lives. - Contact Varghese at  
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