Correctional facilities are dangerous places. What happens when an inmate dies in custody? Prison officials quickly write it off as just another prison death. But under the U.S. Constitution, a correctional facility assumes responsibility for the safety and health of inmates when it deprives them of their freedom.
If the facility fails to meet its constitutional duties, you can sue the prison for the death of your loved one. But these cases are not easy. You should hire prisoners' rights lawyers to help.
Differences Between Wrongful Death and Criminal Homicide in Prison
When someone dies in prison, the manner and cause of death will determine whether a criminal case, a civil case, or both can be brought. The civil system adjudicates disputes and the criminal system adjudicates criminal violations.
Wrongful Death in Prison
Historically, an incarcerated person's legal claims died with them. Under this rule, a claim would disappear forever if someone suffered a personal injury and died before bringing a claim.
This traditional system was unfair, so states like New York passed wrongful death statutes. Under New York's law, the executor of the accident victim's estate can bring a wrongful death claim. When you win your case, the at-fault party must pay damages to you.
Criminal Homicide in Prison
What happens if you die in prison due to inmate or guard violence? Criminal homicide is when a person intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causes someone else's death. The state prosecutes homicide cases. If the state wins a criminal homicide case, the person goes to jail or prison.
You do not need to choose between wrongful death and criminal homicide. The cases can co-exist. Some families choose to wait until criminal charges get filed before filing their civil cases. But this decision is personal and is not required.
The criminal case is out of your hands. Prosecutors decide whether to file homicide charges. Only you can decide when to bring a wrongful death claim.
Causes of Prisoners' Wrongful Deaths
Many circumstances can support a wrongful death claim for a family. The most common causes relate to staff negligence and inadequate medical care.
Wrongful Death in Prison Due to Inadequate Medical Treatment
Under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, jails and prisons cannot engage in "cruel and unusual punishment". When a correctional facility denies adequate medical care, it violates the inmate's Eighth Amendment rights.
To recover the compensation you must show that the institution acted with deliberate indifference in withholding medical care. This means the medical staff failed to provide medical treatment within the prevailing professional standards.
Because inmates are entitled to the same level of medical care as the general public, the estate can sue for wrongful death in prison.
Wrongful Death in Prison Due to Staff Negligence
Prison staff must act with reasonable care in their interactions with inmates. When prison deaths result from a failure to exercise reasonable care, the prison can be held liable. Some examples of staff negligence include:
- Failure to recognize suicide risk;
- Use of excessive force;
- Failure to render medical care to injured or ill inmates;
- Exposing inmates to hazardous premises or toxic environments;
- Negligence in transporting an inmate;
- Negligent supervision of officers and inmates;
- Prisoner neglect.
Suing a prison is not easy. But if your attorney can prove that the prison failed to protect your loved one from a correctional officer, other inmates, or hazardous conditions, you can pursue a claim.
Basic Determinations for a Wrongful Death in Prison Case
Before you file a wrongful death claim after your loved one dies in custody, you and your lawyer must consider who may be liable.
- Who is liable: Jails are usually operated by cities or counties while prisons are run by the state or federal government. You can usually distinguish between jail and prison by looking at the reason your loved one was in custody. Jails hold people awaiting trial and people convicted of misdemeanors while prisons hold people convicted of felonies. In most cases, smaller entities have fewer resources to pay judgments or settlements.
- Private or public entity: Some governments outsource the operation of facilities to private companies that you might also include in a lawsuit. When private companies step into the role of running institutions, they take on the same responsibilities to care for inmates that the government had. They become liable for any injuries or deaths from abuse or neglect.
- Where to file your lawsuit: Generally speaking, you will file a claim against a federal prison in federal court while you will file a claim against a state prison, city jail, or county jail in state court. The same constitutional standards apply regardless of where you file a claim, but each court system uses different deadlines and may have different damages caps.
- Causes of action: You will need to show different evidence and prove different legal elements depending on whether you plan to allege prison medical malpractice, excessive use of force, or medical neglect. Your cause of action might also determine the recoverable damages for which you can seek compensation and what defenses the jail or prison will raise against your claim.
Can you sue if someone dies in jail? Yes, as long as you do some investigation so you are ready for court.
Who Can File a Prisoner Wrongful Death Lawsuit?
Under New York law, only the deceased person's personal representative can file a wrongful death lawsuit. If the deceased inmate had a will, the executor serves as the personal representative. If the inmate died without a will, a probate court will appoint a personal representative.
Additionally, according to New York law, family members cannot bring a claim unless they have also been appointed personal representatives of the deceased person by a probate court.
What Are the Recoverable Damages in a Prison Wrongful Death Case?
New York law specifies the damages available in a claim against a jail or prison. In a wrongful death claim, the trial jury can award:
- Financial losses, such as future lost wages;
- Reimbursement for costs of medical treatment for the inmate's injury, neglect, or abuse;
- Reasonable funeral expenses incurred by the family members or the estate;
- Interest on these amounts from the date of the death;
- Punitive damages so no one else loses their loved ones.
Generally speaking, New York does not allow the personal representative or survivors to pursue compensation for grief, emotional distress, or loss of companionship of a loved one following a death.
What to Do If Your Loved One Died in Jail or Prison
If your loved one died in custody, you should act quickly to protect your rights. Depending on the government running the jail or prison, you might have only 90 days to start your claim. The following are steps you should undertake to determine your legal options for suing the facility:
- Speak to an attorney. Most personal injury attorneys offer a free consultation. Once you learn about your options for pursuing justice for your loved one, you will have a better idea of how to proceed.
- Have the lawyer send a demand letter to the facility. As soon as the agency has notice of your claim, it must preserve all evidence relating to the claim, such as surveillance video, notes, reports, and witness statements. If the facility ignores your demand letter and destroys evidence, a court can punish it.
- Make notes about everything you can remember from conversations with your loved one. Information about inmates, officers, other victims, abuse, and hazards can give your lawyer leads when searching for admissible evidence. Inmates and sympathetic guards might provide eyewitness testimony. Neglect, abuse, failure to provide medical treatment, negligent medical staff, hazardous conditions, and guard misconduct might be to blame for the death.
- Do not speak to anyone about your claim without your attorney present. The best course is to let the attorneys and the law handle your issue. Talking too much could prompt officers, administrators, or even other inmates to destroy evidence. Worse yet, you might give them the opening to talk you out of your claim or try to get you to settle for less than the value of your case.
Once you have gathered some information, you need to decide whether to proceed with your claim. Your inmate rights lawyer can evaluate the odds that you will recover compensation and estimate the value of your case.
How Do You File a Claim After a NY Prisoner’s Wrongful Death?
The exact filing procedure depends on where your loved one was held in custody at the time of their death. Under U.S. law, all claims against a federal prison or prison employee must start with an administrative claim filed with the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons.
If the death happened in a state prison, county jail, or city jail, you should talk to a local attorney in that jurisdiction to find out how to file a claim against the appropriate government agency that operated the jail or prison.
Where Do You File a Claim If Your Loved One Dies in Prison in New York?
In New York, you must file a Notice of Claim with the agency responsible for the facility where the death occurred. For a state prison, serve the filing on the State of New York. For local jails, serve the city or county.
You only have a 90-day statute of limitations to file a Notice of Claim, so you should speak to an attorney immediately.
What Happens After You File a Prisoner’s Wrongful Death Claim?
The state or federal agency responsible for investigating prison deaths will investigate your claim. You will typically not have any input into this process, but the agency might reach out to you for information or even offer a settlement. You should consider having your lawyer act as the point of contact so you can stay on top of your case and respond in a timely way.
What Is an Investigation Report in Prison Wrongful Death Cases?
In claims filed against a federal prison, the Bureau of Prisons will issue an investigation report. This report will include the original claim, evidence uncovered by the bureau, and the warden's report. The bureau will either deny your claim or offer a prisoner wrongful death settlement.
If the bureau denies your claim, you can appeal the decision by litigating in court. In litigation, your lawyer can compel the prison to turn over additional documents and make witnesses available to testify.
When the bureau accepts your claim, you may receive a settlement offer. The bureau can offer up to $50,000 without seeking approval from the Justice Department.
Contact an Attorney for Prisoner's Rights
Losing a loved one is traumatic. When you lose them to someone else's actions, you need justice. You will want someone to be held responsible for their death and to pay compensation for your loss.
When your loved one goes into custody, you have the right to expect the officials to protect them. If they fail to provide adequate care, refuse to protect an inmate from abuse, and expose them to the risk of harm, you may have a compensation claim.
Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm focuses on prisoners' rights and personal injury cases. Contact us online or by calling 212.869.3500 to discuss your loved one's death and your right to pursue fair compensation.