7/22/2010 - Posted by:
Spinella & Associates
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Negligence award against police who did nothing while man hanged self in jail

Life was starting to look good again for 26-year-old Mel Berger (name changed to preserve confidentiality). He was engaged to a very nice woman and his business prospects were improving after recovering from a bout of depression. Mel had attempted suicide before by running to the cemetery and going through the motions of slashing his wrists. The Berger family had been advised to call police if Mel talked about committing suicide. The family couldn't control him because he was so big—6 feet, 4 inches tall. His nickname was "Lurch." On a summer night in 1989, Mel told his family that he was going to the cemetery to kill himself. His younger brother Jim, who idolized him, tackled him and tried to stop him. Mrs. Berger called the local police, asking them to take Mel to the hospital because he was depressed and acting up. When the police arrived, Mel was sitting on the neighbors' lawn with his fiancé and his father, waiting for the officers to take him to the hospital. His brother arrived shortly thereafter. Instead of calming the situation, the officer arriving on the scene—who was the son of the police chief—handcuffed Mel, roughed him up and shoved him into the cruiser. Jim Berger, then 21, witnessed this and protested. Jim was arrested and accused of breach of peace. He was placed in another cruiser. At this point, Mel Berger became agitated again. He started hitting his head against the cage in the back seat of the cruiser. The family pleaded with police to bring Mel to the hospital. But instead, the police brought Mel to the police station. They threw him in a cell diagonally across from the cell where they locked up his younger brother Jim. Then the police went upstairs. Eventually, the family members who were not incarcerated arrived upstairs. Police failed to tell them what was going on. They were just told to fill out some forms. Mel Berger hung himself, using his shirt, in front of his brother. As Jim screamed in terror, police waited five minutes to go down to the cells. All during this time, police had monitors to view the hanging and Jim's desperate, unanswered cries for help. When the police finally made it downstairs, they cut Mel loose. He was unconscious but still breathing. They left him sitting and went back upstairs. Soon thereafter, Mel hung himself a second time. As police waited upstairs, Mel hung himself with his long sock. Another several minutes passed. With Jim screaming in horror, police cut Mel down a second time. About this time, police upstairs told the parents that they now agreed to take Mel to the hospital. They did not, however, tell them why. The police had failed to administer first aid to Mel until about 20 minutes after the second hanging, when he started turning blue. The ambulance company, meanwhile, was out of radio contact. This ambulance company, which had a contract with the city, did not arrive for 32 minutes. When the ambulance finally arrived, they did start to administer proper first aid. But it was too late. Mel Berger finally made it to the hospital. He was dead on arrival at the hospital steps. Spinella & Associates obtained what was described as the first or second highest settlement in the country from a police department that failed to prevent suicide, according to world-renowned expert Joseph Rowan, who has established suicide-prevention guidelines for police around the world. The ambulance company paid a portion of the settlement, but the city paid the brunt of it. The ambulance company was negligent for not responding sooner. According to the plaintiff’s experts, the red flags of potential jail suicide, which matched the client's profile—white male under 25 years of age, depressed, agitated, intoxicated, with prior suicidal ideation and no prior criminal record—had been ignored. Proper suicide screening, identification, observation and management could have prevented this tragedy from happening. “Hopefully," said an attorney for Spinella & Associates, "as a result of the outcome of this case, this particular police department, and other departments throughout the State, will take steps to ensure that such unnecessary deaths do not occur in police holding cells."
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