Lawsuit in Del. Inmate's Suicide Moves Forward - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Lawsuit in Del. Inmate's Suicide Moves Forward

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WILMINGTON, Del. (AP)- A Delaware family who sued two state Department of Corrections officials over an inmate's 2004 suicide can move forward with their lawsuit, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The wife and children of Christopher Barkes, who committed suicide at the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in November 2004, filed the lawsuit in 2006 against former Delaware Department of Correction Commissioner Stan Taylor and former warden Raphael Williams, both now retired.

In a 2-1 decision on Sept. 5, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that the Barkes family can sue the former corrections officials, rejecting the officials' arguments that they should be immune from the lawsuit.

Attorney Jeffrey Martin, who represents the Barkes family, said his clients are pleased that the case is finally moving forward after so many years.

The Delaware Attorney General's Office, which represented the corrections officials, said they're reviewing their options but declined to comment on the case. They could ask for the full 3rd Circuit to review the decision or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Christopher Barkes, 37, hanged himself with a sheet in his cell at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Baltimore on Nov. 14, 2004, less than 24 hours after being arrested for violating probation.

Despite a history of substance abuse and suicide attempts, including one at Howard during a previous incarceration, a prison nurse passed Barkes through a mental health screening without calling for any special observation or care, the court ruling said.

The nurse apparently did not check prison records or probation reports describing Barkes as a threat to himself, instead relying on a form Barkes filled out saying he wasn't suicidal and didn't have substance abuse issues, the ruling said.

Still, Martin said Barkes did indicate on the form that he had attempted suicide in 2003, and that should have raised a red flag for the nurse, employed by First Correctional Medical, the company Delaware hired provide medical services in state prisons.

The 3rd Circuit panel ruled that Barkes' family's lawsuit can proceed against Taylor and Williams because both had been put on notice about the "deteriorating quality" of First Correctional Medical's care before the suicide.

Audits cited repeated deficiencies and on June 2004, five months before Barkes' suicide, one corrections official described the company as "beyond the borderline of not being in compliance with the contract," according to meeting minutes.

In court depositions, Williams and Taylor said they were aware the company was falling short and may have been intentionally keeping positions vacant to save money.

The corrections department didn't take any apparent action against First Correctional Medical until May 2005, six months after Barkes' suicide, according to court records.

The Barkes family also sued First Correctional Medical. In 2008, a judge found in favor of the family and ordered the company to pay them $850,000. But the company went into bankruptcy and the family was never able to collect on the award, Martin said.

The remaining lawsuit against Taylor and Williams seeks unspecified damages for Barkes' widow and two children.

Martin said his clients have been left with a void in their lives and are looking forward to having their day in court.

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