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Jury awards $2.85 million in Sullivan jail suicide

City’s insurance lawyers will likely appeal Friday’s verdict

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Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2013 6:11 pm | Updated: 3:30 pm, Thu Jan 31, 2013.

SULLIVAN – A federal jury on Friday handed down a $2.85 million judgment to the survivors of a 27-old-year Sullivan woman that committed suicide while incarcerated in a city jail cell. Karen A. Palmer hanged herself with a hoodie string Oct. 17, 2009 after being arrested by SPD officers on an outstanding warrant.

The wrongful death action filed on behalf of Palmer’s surviving parents and minor child claimed, among other things, that several SPD officers failed to remove the string from Palmer’s sweatshirt before placing her into a jail cell. The lawsuit also claims that officers knew Palmer was depressed and at risk of committing suicide. Furthermore, the lawsuit accused the department of failing to properly monitor Palmer per guidelines set forth by SPD policy.

The City of Sullivan was dropped from the lawsuit due to legal immunity laws. However, five SPD officers remained as defendants in the lawsuit that was filed Aug. 5, 2011. The jury found that four of the officers had “complete indifference to or conscious disregard” for the safety of Palmer, awarding $1.55 million in punitive damages to the plaintiff family members. The punitive damages – on top of $1.3 million in actual damages - was split in four unequal amounts according to the jury’s findings against each officer.

The $1.3 million actual damages – loss of income, funeral expenses, etc. – were awarded to the family members against the following SPD officers: *Darrin Jones, Don Reed, Jeff Rohrer, Shaun Hinson, and Kevin Halbert (communications). The $1.55 million aggravating circumstances damages (punitive damages), were awarded to the family members against the following:

Kevin Halbert - $1,000,000

Don Reed - $150,000

Jeff Rohrer - $250,000

Shaun Hinson - $150,000

*(Darrin Jones was part of the actual damages, but not punitive.)

“We feel that the jury verdict vindicates our clients,” said attorney Don Schlapprizzi, who represents Palmer’s mother, Debora Tanner, father Danny Palmer, and Karen Palmer’s minor child. “This case involved Sullivan Police officers failure to take dangerous items away from an inmate and their failure to monitor.”

According to court records, the case began Oct. 16, 2009 when SPD Officer Jeff Rohrer arrested Palmer on an outstanding warrant. Palmer was also a suspect in a felony stealing case involving a bottle of narcotic painkillers. Officer Rohrer, along with Det. Dave Roche (now deceased), discussed the stealing case with Palmer and she was upset, but not threatening suicide.

At some point, Officer Rohrer and SPD Officer Don Reed escorted Palmer back to her house, where they retrieved the stolen pill bottle. Palmer’s boyfriend and his mother were at the house and she (boyfriend’s mother) allegedly told the SPD officers that Palmer was not in “her right frame of mind” and should not be left alone. It isn’t clear if officers heard the alleged statements, but officers testified that they never felt Palmer was suicidal and had no reason to believe she (Palmer) was in any danger. The officers and Palmer returned to the SPD headquarters/jail.

Officers Rohrer and Reed finished booking Palmer into jail. Rohrer said he patted her down, but did not see a string on her sweatshirt. Reed also said he did not see a string on Palmer’s sweatshirt, also stating that he was trained to spot such an item. Palmer was on medication, but officers Rohrer and Reed testified that they did not know what kind of medication she was taking and Rohrer further testified that he did not know Palmer was bipolar.

Officer Shaun Hinson took Palmer’s fingerprints and allowed her to make a phone call. Palmer called her mother, hoping to get her $250 bail posted. Officer Hinson placed Palmer into a cell, but did not search her because he thought Officer Reed had already searched her. Hinson stated that he did not see a hoodie string.

Later that night, at 12:40 a.m. on Oct. 17, 2009, Officer Matt Hines provided Palmer with medication. About seven hours later, Palmer was given breakfast and at 7:50 a.m. Officer Darrin Jones provided Palmer access to her medication. Jones said he was trained to screen for suicidal inmates, but did not notice anything unusual. When he went to deliver Palmer lunch, he found her dead.

Jones testified that Palmer had a pink string around her neck, she was leaning against the cell and her feet were on the ground. He called for assistance and Officer Reed responded. Reed cut the string and lowered Palmer to the ground. She was pronounced dead by paramedics at the scene.

At the time of Palmer’s death, the Sullivan Police Department relied on video surveillance because the city does not have a jailer. The SPD policy states that the communications officer is required to conduct surveillance on the inmates in 10-minute intervals. On Oct. 17, 2009, Officer Kevin Halbert was the communications officer on duty. He was responsible for monitoring Palmer.

Halbert stated that he did not see Palmer tie the string to the cell and hang herself because he was busy with other duties. Halbert, per SPD policy, was required to check inmates on 10-minute intervals, not constantly.  According to court records, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nannette Baker dismissed some elements of the lawsuit against Halbert, stating that he (Halbert) did not know that Palmer presented a substantial suicide risk. However, in pretrial motions, the Court refused to dismiss a claim that Halbert was negligent in monitoring Palmer.

Halbert stated that he did not see Palmer committing suicide and that (after she had committed suicide) he thought she was sitting down and everything was OK.  During the trial, there was a discrepancy between what Officer Halbert said he saw on the video monitor and what the videotape actually shows.

Court testimony indicates that Palmer was dead in her cell for about two hours before being discovered. Before hanging herself, Palmer had apparently failed a suicide attempt by cutting her wrist with a plastic fork that was delivered via a jail meal; negligence claims connected to the fork were dismissed from the lawsuit.

The jury of nine took three hours on Friday afternoon to deliver the $2.85 million verdict.  It is believed that the defendant officers are covered under city insurance. An appeal is expected.

(More in the next issue of the Sullivan Journal)

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