Where Spotsylvania County officers allegedly knew a woman posed a known risk of suicide but failed to check her for weapons, and the woman thereafter killed herself with a hidden gun, her estate’s claims for gross negligence and deliberate indifference may proceed.
On Aug. 30, 2020, Theresa Marie Basilica went to the emergency department at Mary Washington Hospital, seeking help during a mental health crisis. Eighteen hours later, she died of a self-inflicted gunshot while in the defendants’ custody.
Mark and Roberta Basilica, as the administrators of their daughter’s estate, filed suit against Spotsylvania County Sheriff Roger L. Harris, Rachel Vega and Jason Morris.
Essentially, the plaintiffs say that Basilica posed a known risk of suicide, that she had hidden a pistol in her bra, that the deputy sheriffs did not check her for weapons and that their failure to do so resulted in her killing herself with the hidden gun. Defendants have filed motions to dismiss.
The plaintiffs argue that, by virtue of the temporary detention order, Vega and Morris had notice of Basilica’s risk of harm to herself and others. They allege that neither officer spoke with hospital staff to understand whether Basilica had access to weapons or had been left unsupervised. They allege that neither officer conducted a pat down nor interviewed her to better understand the risks she posed during the long drive to Staunton. The plaintiffs allege that Vega and Morris took no precautions against these risks.
The defendants argue that, by restraining Basilica, Vega and Morris showed some degree of care, sufficient to defeat gross negligence. They assert that even inadequate efforts demonstrate a sufficient level of care.
The plaintiffs have satisfied the gross negligence standard: the officers knew of the danger Basilica posed and took no precautions. Viewing the facts alleged in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs have adequately pleaded their claim. Accordingly, the court will deny the defendants’ motion to dismiss Count One.
The plaintiffs assert that Vega and Morris knew Basilica posed a substantial risk of harm to herself or others (her medical need) and failed to search her for weapons (an unreasonable response to Basilica’s medical needs). Accordingly, they argue that Vega and Morris’s unreasonable response to Basilica’s suicide risk made their seizure unreasonable.
The court declines this invitation to expand its interpretation of the Fourth Amendment for two reasons. First, the dearth of caselaw to support this argument demonstrates its legal insufficiency. Second, the plaintiffs have established that Basilica entered Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office, or SCSO, custody much earlier in the day when the magistrate issued the emergency custody order. Accordingly, the court will grant the defendants’ motion to dismiss Count Two of the amended complaint.
Farmer v. Brennan established the two-prong framework for deliberate indifference. For the first prong, the alleged constitutional deprivation “must be, objectively, sufficiently serious” and “result in the denial of the minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities.” For the second prong, the “prison official must have a ‘sufficiently culpable state of mind.’”
Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, they have plausibly alleged that Basilica (1) had a substantial risk of suicide and (2) the risk was obvious. Vega and Morris knew, by virtue of the temporary detention order, that Basilica posed a substantial risk of harm even if they did not know the particulars of her psychiatric history. Accordingly, the court will deny the defendants’ motion to dismiss Count Three.
The plaintiffs make two arguments in support of Harris’s supervisory liability. First, Harris and the SCSO had a custom of failing to properly handle individuals with mental health conditions. Second, Harris and the SCSO “had a custom or practice of failing to train personnel on how to properly hand, search, seize, detain, and transport individuals with mental and/ or behavioral health conditions in order to ensure such individuals do not have access to weapons.”
The defendants argue that the plaintiffs may not rely on a single incident to satisfy their burden. The defendants misconstrue the plaintiffs’ burden at this stage. Accordingly, when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the amended complaint adequately pleads supervisory liability. The court will deny the motion to dismiss Count Four.
Because further factual development will assist the court in deciding whether to grant qualified immunity at summary judgment, the court will not consider the affirmative defense at this time.
Defendants’ motion to dismiss granted in part, denied in part.
Basilica v. Harris, Case No. 3:22-cv-382, Feb. 27, 2023. EDVA at Richmond (Gibney). VLW 023-3-097. 15 pp.