Jail Death Cases: Whether to Include State Law Claims

Jail inmates have various rights under the United States Constitution.  When an inmate dies in custody due to a violation of these rights, a claim may often be asserted in federal court under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 for the unconstitutional death.  When considering the full range of legal claims that should be asserted arising out of a wrongful death that occurs in jail, it is also important to determine whether state law claims should be asserted in addition to any federal claims that might be alleged.

In appropriate circumstances, a federal court hearing a case involving a jail death may also have “supplemental jurisdiction” to decide state-law claims in addition to the federal claims being asserted by the estate of the decedent and/or surviving family members.  State law claims for wrongful death occurring in jail can include, for example, wrongful death or survival claims under applicable state law.  At times, it can be important to include such claims as part of the federal court complaint.  In some situations, damages might be available under state law that are not available under federal law.  In other situations, however, an attorney might decide that state law claims are not possible to pursue or may decide not to assert such claims for strategic reasons.  For example, some states have imposed “caps” or “limits” on the damages that can be recovered in cases involving wrongful death.  Strategically, because of these caps, it is sometimes better not to assert any state law claims at all.  Still other states prevent such claims from being asserted at all unless there are certain categories of surviving family members.  State laws vary widely on these and other issues.

The bottom line is that an attorney should carefully consider whether, in addition to asserting federal law claims, one or more state law claims should also be asserted.  The answer to these questions will often involve careful and thorough research that takes into account who the surviving family members are, where the death occurred, who the defendants are, where the estate is located, and whether there are open questions about which state’s law applies.  In some circumstances, a state law claim should very likely be asserted in addition to the federal claim.  In other circumstances, it will be evident that a state law claim cannot or should not be asserted.  In still other circumstances, a strategic decision may be required about whether asserting state law claims is likely to be worthwhile and productive.  An attorney familiar with wrongful death litigation against jails and prisons can help navigate the decision-making process and advise family members or the estate’s representative about the best course of action.

If a loved one has died in jail and you are interested in consulting with an attorney about the case, choose an attorney experienced in jail death litigation.  The attorneys at Budge & Heipt focus on wrongful death cases arising in jail or prison.  Feel free to contact our offices for a free consultation.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.