UC settles suit over its care preceding 2008 jail suicide

Published: Thursday, Sep. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Sep. 5, 2013 - 6:21 am

The University of California regents have agreed to pay $375,000 to the family of a man who committed suicide while an inmate at the Sacramento County jail and a patient of the jail's psychiatric staff.

Psychiatric personnel are employees of the university and work at the jail under contract with the county.

A civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit was filed in federal court more than four years ago on behalf of Baljit Singh's survivors – four minor children and their mother.

By the time a settlement was worked out, the only claims left were based on alleged violations of federal civil rights law. The four remaining defendants were Dr. Robert E. Hales, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at UC Davis; Paul Hendricks, clinical director of Jail Psychiatric Services, or JPS; Dr. Gregory Sokolov, medical director of JPS, and L. Michael Tompkins, a JPS psychologist.

They were accused in the suit of deliberate indifference to Singh's needs, constitutionally deficient supervision and ratification of the substandard care that led to his death.

The four continue to adamantly deny any responsibility for Singh's suicide, according to a request by the parties for court approval of the settlement. U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez signed off on the settlement Friday.

The defendants' primary incentive to resolve the matter, the request says, was the fees and costs they would have to pay to the children's attorneys if the plaintiffs prevailed at trial, plus the defendants' own attorneys' fees and costs of going to trial.

They were also concerned about how a jury would react to some of the evidence.

One week before his deposition, Tompkins threw out his notes on Singh's care. Two court days before the trial was initially scheduled to begin, it was revealed there were significant omissions from Singh's JPS file, the case's most critical evidence. The trial was continued and additional discovery was undertaken at the defendants' expense.

Under the settlement, four accounts of $25,000 each are to be set up, one for each child. The children will not have access to the money until they are 18. An additional $25,000 will be paid to Singh's widow, Amarjit Singh.

The $250,000 balance will go to the family's lawyers, Stewart Katz and Joseph C. George. Katz was hired in 2008, and George in 2009.

Baljit Singh, 39, was arrested March 5, 2008, and held as a pretrial detainee in connection with driving-related offenses.

According to the complaint filed by Katz on behalf of the family, Singh had an extensive history of mental health problems, including deep depression, bipolar disorder and alcohol dependency.

He had made two attempts at suicide prior to his arrest, the complaint said, and had been taking prescription psychiatric medications, including Seroquel.

At the 2008 booking, a jail nurse determined Singh was medically unfit for incarceration and he was sent to the UC Davis Medical Center because he was showing the effects of withdrawal from alcohol and chronic pancreatitis, the request for approval of the settlement relates. The nurse also noted he was to be seen by JPS for mental issues and his need for psychotropic medications.

Singh returned to the jail on March 10, 2008, and was seen three days later by JPS staffer Lori Severance, a licensed clinical social worker, court papers say. She recorded his history of suicide attempts and involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations, and Singh's desperation to continue his medications.

That afternoon, Singh, while alone in his cell, wrapped an elasticized bandage around his neck in an attempt to kill himself. Alerted by another inmate, a deputy was able to remove the noose.

Singh was taken to the hospital, where no significant injury was found, and returned to jail.

He was seen the next day – March 14 – by JPS psychiatric nurse Donna L. Champeau, who is now deceased. Plaintiffs claim she ignored the file documenting his psychiatric history, and instead decided Singh was "evasive" and "manipulative," and cleared him for general population with no suicide precautions.

But wary deputies sought "an evaluation of a suicidal inmate."

The request went to Tompkins. While he was reviewing the file, Severance told him she thought Singh should be placed on suicide watch. Tompkins spoke to Singh for two to five minutes. Singh asked when he would be seen by a psychiatrist so his medications could be resumed. Tompkins told him that wasn't going to happen before the following week. Tompkins did not tell jail staff that Singh was a suicide risk.

Later that day, Singh jumped to his death from the top tier of his fourth-floor housing unit.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.


Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

Read more articles by Denny Walsh



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