The New Jersey Supreme Court upheld a $1.5 million verdict after Ocean County Jail officials tried to dodge a lawsuit from the widow of a man with a documented risk of suicide who took his life at the jail in 2010. The officials tried to claim immunity under a state law meant to protect public entities from negligence claims, News From The States reports. County officials and the jail’s private medical provider will need to pay the damages jointly. Justices agreed that county officials could claim immunity under provisions of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act. However, testimony during a trial in which Kenneth Conforti’s widow sought to hold the jail accountable for his death demonstrated negligence on the county’s part outside of those parameters, Justice Rachel Wainer Apter wrote.
Conforti was jailed for violating a restraining order, and medical and jail staff at that time properly flagged various concerns. When he returned to jail the following month for another restraining order violation, a nurse failed to check records from his previous incarceration and took him at his word that he had no problems. Conforti was cleared for a general population cell. Jail staff then compounded those intake missteps. Guards failed to act when Conforti closed his cell door. The guard tasked with walking the unit hourly failed to make those checks at random times. He also didn’t notice that Conforti had put a sheet over his cell door window, another policy violation. The ruling means the county must pay 60% and Correctional Health Services must pay 40% of the $150,000 in damages and $1.4 million for pain and suffering the trial jury ordered.