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Vallejo by Morales v. Rahway Police Dept.

July 18, 1996


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Union County.

Approved for Publication July 18, 1996.

Before Judges Dreier, A.m. Stein and Cuff. The opinion of the court was delivered by Cuff, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cuff

The opinion of the court was delivered by CUFF, J.A.D.

William Vallejo suffered severe brain damage in an aborted suicide attempt while detained in a cell at the Rahway Police Department. Through his guardian, plaintiff has asserted negligence claims against a police officer, the police department and the municipality and civil rights claims against the police department and the municipality. Tried to a jury, judgment was entered in favor of the defendants. We conclude that the negligence claims against the police officer should not have been dismissed and errors in the charge require a new trial. We affirm the dismissal of the civil rights claim.

At approximately midnight on January 7, 1990, Officers David Jackson and Robert Conroy responded to a report of domestic violence. Plaintiff's girlfriend, Elba Delgado, with whom he lived, was holding a butcher knife and her forearm was bleeding. She told the officers that they argued when he took a knife from the kitchen and that he stabbed her as she tried to defend herself. In a certification submitted in opposition to defendant Jackson's motion for summary judgment and at trial, Ms. Delgado asserted that she informed Jackson at the scene that plaintiff had threatened to kill her and himself. Jackson insists that Delgado relayed this information to him at the police station and contemporaneously with the discovery by another officer that Vallejo was hanging from the bars in his cell.

It is undisputed that at the time of the incident and when placed in the cell at police headquarters, Vallejo was intoxicated. According to Officers Jackson and Conroy, when they confronted Vallejo in his bedroom, he was composed and complied with all requests. He remained calm and cooperative while he was transported to the police station and processed prior to being placed in a cell. Plaintiff inquired if he could make a phone call; Jackson advised him to wait until bail was fixed. Jackson observed that plaintiff seemed to understand the advice. After he placed plaintiff in his cell at 12:45 a.m., Jackson made a log entry. He noted that plaintiff was intoxicated.

Russell Tyrell occupied the cell next to plaintiff. He recalled that, when the police officer brought plaintiff to the cellblock, he was "weaving" and "wasn't listening very good because the officer had to tell him twice everything that he did." About five minutes after plaintiff was left in the cell, Tyrell heard sounds coming from plaintiff's cell "like he was throwing up." The noise continued for five to ten minutes. About five minutes after the "vomiting" sound stopped, an officer returned to the cell.

Kevin Ferrence was in the cell on the other side of plaintiff. He remembered that plaintiff had asked to call his sister and that the police officer told him he would "be back in a minute." After the officer left, Ferrence heard "[a sound] like he was moaning a little bit. [Plaintiff] sounded like he was upset and then all of a sudden, he was dry heaving." He also testified that he heard plaintiff pacing back and forth in his cell and concluded that he was depressed.

That evening Sergeant Joseph Visco was working in the communications room with a "direct view" of plaintiff's cell from a window. The cell was also monitored by an electronic video surveillance system. Cell checks could be accomplished by watching the monitors, walking into the cellblock, or looking through the window of the communications room. According to Visco, unless the detained person was on suicide watch, an occupied cell would be checked every thirty minutes.

At 1:00 a.m., fifteen minutes after Vallejo had been placed in the cell, Visco checked his cell by looking through the communications room window. He made a note in the log that Vallejo was intoxicated and sitting down.

At 1:15 a.m., a half-hour after Vallejo was placed in the cell, Visco checked the monitor and saw "something against the bars which I couldn't quite make out." Standing up, Visco saw that plaintiff was "hanging from the cell bars." Visco alerted the shift commander, ran to get Jackson, and told Jackson to follow him because "the prisoner had hung himself."

When Visco and Jackson reached the cell, Vallejo was hanging by the neck from his shirt. Visco reached through the bars to hold Vallejo up. Jackson entered the cell, grabbed plaintiff by the waist and lifted him up to remove the pressure from his neck. Conroy relieved Jackson who cut the shirt from plaintiff's neck.

Visco and Conroy administered CPR and Jackson administered oxygen. At 1:40 a.m., plaintiff was taken to the hospital. He survived, but he suffers from post-anoxic encephalopathy with an organic mental syndrome and motor ...

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