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Mother can’t sue state for son’s suicide, rules 7th Circuit

The duty to take more active anti-suicide measures arises only when the risk is imminent, the 7th Circuit has ruled, affirming summary judgment for state officials who treated a teenager who hung himself while in a youth detention facility.

A 16-year-old was admitted to the facility with a history of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, major depression, bipolar disorder, psychosis, behavior disorders and anger and drug abuse issues. He had been hospitalized on five prior occasions and attempted suicide more than once.

Nine months later, he hanged himself from the top bunk in his room with a sheet.

His mother filed suit against various state officials. She claimed they violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights by acting with deliberate indifference in the use of bunk beds that posed a “death trap for any resident inclined to commit suicide.”

But the court disagreed, affirming dismissal of her suit.

“[The deceased] had a lengthy history of mental disturbances and disorders, wholly apart from the question of suicide, and he had tried to take his own life three times. At both times he entered [the facilities] he appeared to the professionals there who evaluated him to be on a more solid footing. The law as it stood at the time [he] was being assessed by [the defendants] did not clearly require more from them. …

“[The deceased] was a very troubled young man, and it is likely that everyone who cared for him regrets that they were not able to forestall his suicide. But the fact that more measures, or different measures, might have been undertaken, and that those measures might have been successful (though even this is not certain) is not enough to support liability under the Constitution against any of the defendants now before us,” the court said.

U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit. Miller v. Harbaugh, No. 11-3418. Oct. 19, 2012.

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