In Conforti v. County of Ocean (A-1-22/086206) (Decided August 10, 2023), the Supreme Court of New Jersey held that Ocean County was not immune from liability for negligence in connection with a suicide death of an individual incarcerated at the Ocean County Jail. According to the court, the evidence in the case fell outside any immunity granted by New Jersey Tort Claims Act.
Facts of Conforti v. County of Ocean
On October 20, 2010, Kenneth Conforti wrote a suicide note, closed the door to his cell at the Ocean County Jail (OCJ), and covered the cell door window with a sheet. He then tied bedsheets together and hung himself from a ceiling light fixture over the toilet.
Kenneth Conforti was first arrested September 8, 2010, for violating the restraining order by returning to the marital home to see his son. Upon arrival to the Ocean County Jail, he reported the following to a staff member of Correctional Health Services (CHS) (1) drinking half a gallon of vodka each day; (2) major surgery that left him with rods and screws in his back; (3) feeling “hopeless or helpless”; and (4) the “[r]ecent significant loss” of his marriage. A physician prescribed him one extra mattress and medicine for back pain and alcohol dependence, and instructed that he not be assigned work or a top bunk. After 27 days, Conforti was released.
Shortly after his release, Conforti was arrested for again returning to the marital home to see his son. During his intake, OCJ staff, filled out the same intake form, but noted this time that Conforti reported no major surgical history, did not “feel helpless or hopeless,” had no “[r]ecent significant loss,” and was only a “social” drinker. A document from Conforti’s file acknowledged his previous incarceration and history of binge drinking but stated he had “[n]o current mental health issues/concerns” and was cleared for OCJ’s general population.
Initially assigned to a cell in which he had a bunk, Conforti was transferred to a cell in which he had to sleep on the floor. On October 16, he requested medical attention for back pain and was told he could purchase Motrin or Tylenol. On October 20, Conforti committed suicide.
Plaintiff, Kenneth Conforti’s wife, sued Ocean County, the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the Ocean County Department of Corrections, retired OCJ Warden Theodore Hutler, and OCJ Corporal Peter Petrizzo (collectively, the defendants) for negligence and a violation of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA). After a trial, the jury found defendants negligent and awarded damages to plaintiff.
The defendants subsequently sought to overturn the verdict, arguing that they are immune from liability for negligence under Chapter Six of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (TCA) entitled “Medical, Hospital and Public Health Activities.” The defendants specifically relied on three provisions of the TCA: N.J.S.A. 59:6-4, which grants absolute immunity for a public entity or public employee’s failure to perform an adequate examination to determine whether a person has a physical or mental condition which would be hazardous to that person or others, unless the examination is for the purpose of treatment; N.J.S.A. 59:6-5, which grants immunity to public entities and employees for diagnosing or failing to diagnose “that a person has a mental illness” or drug use disorder, and from failing to prescribe treatment for a mental illness or drug use disorder; and N.J.S.A. 59:6-6, which grants immunity for decisions regarding whether to confine a person for mental illness or drug dependence, and the terms and conditions of such confinement or release.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in Conforti v. County of Ocean
The New Jersey Supreme Court found that the defendants were not entitled to immunity. The court first held that the definition of “medical facility” under N.J.S.A. 59:6-1 does not restrict the substantive immunities granted in N.J.S.A. 59:6-4, -5, or -6, which are also not “superseded in the jail suicide context.”
“We agree with defendants that the definition of ‘medical facility’ under N.J.S.A. 59:6-1 does not restrict the substantive immunities granted in N.J.S.A. 59:6-4, -5, or -6. As defendants point out, none of those three provisions are limited to medical facilities. Instead, they grant immunities to public entities and public employees,” Justice Rachel Wainer Apter wrote. “We also agree with defendants that the immunities set forth in N.J.S.A. 59:6-4, -5, and -6 are not ‘superseded in the jail suicide context.’”
While the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the defendants could be immunized “in theory,” it further held that there was evidence presented, both at the summary judgment stage and at trial, that falls outside of any immunities granted by the TCA. Accordingly, the trial court was correct to refuse to dismiss plaintiff’s negligence count at the summary judgment stage and to refuse to overturn the jury’s verdict after trial.
As the court explained, the plaintiff’s expert opined that the defendants were negligent by failing to adequately train OCJ staff on preventing inmate suicide; failing to adopt and implement an adequate suicide prevention policy; failing to follow OCJ’s existing Suicide Prevention Policy; failing to conduct mortality reviews after inmate suicides and to revise policies accordingly; “[f]ailing to recognize or appreciate the danger of a closed and locked cell door with a towel covering the door either through patrols or video surveillance”; and “[e]ngaging in predictable and easily timed and anticipated patrols of the cell block” for all inmates, when OCJ’s Suicide Prevention Policy specifically prohibited easily timed patrols.
“None of that conduct would be immune under 59:6-4, -5, or -6, which immunize injuries caused by failing to make an adequate physical or mental examination that is not for purposes of treatment, failing to diagnose that a person has a mental illness or drug use disorder or to treat that disorder, and failing to confine a person ‘for mental illness or drug dependence,’ and the terms and conditions of such confinement,” Justice Apter wrote. The court went on to find that even though the trial court erred in failing to address defendants’ arguments under the TCA at the summary judgment stage, it was not wrong in refusing to dismiss the plaintiff’s negligence claim because there was evidence from which a jury could find negligence without reference to any immunized conduct.