Wrongful Death in Jail: Liability of Private Health Care Corporations

When pursuing a case for wrongful death in jail, it is important to consider which entities bear potential responsibility for the death.  Responsible parties can include the municipality (such as the city or county) that runs the jail, as well as individuals who may have had responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of the person who died in custody.

Increasingly, however, municipalities are “privatizing” or “outsourcing” aspects of jail operations.  Around the country, counties and cities have turned to large private health care corporations to handle inmate health care needs in their jails.  The reason for this is simple: saving money.  By privatizing health care in their jails through contracts with private firms or entities, municipalities hope to save tax dollars and transfer the responsibility for inmate health care from themselves to others.  Indeed, some private entities are now literally running all aspects of jail operations through municipal contacts, not just health care.

There is much debate about whether privatization of correctional responsibilities is appropriate, and numerous preventable tragedies have been exposed by journalists and others.  But the fact is that such privatization is pervasive across America and is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

When considering a case for wrongful death in jail, there are many important questions, including the following two:  (1) if a municipality has contracted with a private entity, can that private entity be a defendant for purposes of a constitutional claim; and (2) what claims can properly be alleged against that entity and what defenses might that entity properly assert?

Fortunately, the answer to the first question is “Yes.”  As a general rule, the United States Constitution only applies to government actors, not private firms, companies or individuals.  However, when a municipality contracts with a private entity to provide jail services, that private entity and, in appropriate circumstances, its employees can be liable for constitutional violations under federal law (42 U.S.C. Section 1983) just as a municipality would be if it were the municipality itself providing the services directly.  Furthermore, the mere fact that a county or city contracted with the private entity does not relieve the county or city from liability for constitutional violations.  In other words, when a county or city outsources jail health care services and a person wrongfully dies as the result of constitutionally-deficient conditions, both the private provider and the county or city can be liable for the death under federal law (assuming, of course, all necessary elements are proven).

As to the claims that can properly be alleged against that entity and the available defenses the entity might assert, the answers can be more difficult.  For example, can the entity be liable for punitive damages?  Must the plaintiff prove the elements normally required for municipal liability (e.g. an unconstitutional policy, custom or practice) even though the entity being sued is private and not public?  The answers to these questions may depend, in large part, on where the wrongful death occurred.

The United States court system consists of 94 district courts in the 50 states and territories.  Above those are 11 higher courts, and 1 Supreme Court.  When the Supreme Court has not spoken on a particular issue, the rulings of the various circuit courts control.  These rulings are not always uniform.  Thus, the federal law in one area of the country may be interpreted differently than in another area.  For this reason, and since the facts of any particular case play a critical role, cases must be analyzed individually on a case-by-case basis.

The bottom line is this:  even if a county or city has sought to privatize jail health services through a contract with a private entity, there can still be a strong federal law case against both the private entity and the municipality for constitutional violations.  At Budge & Heipt, we seek justice for victims of wrongful death in jail.  If you would like to discuss a case involving the death of a loved one in jail or prison, please contact our office at (206) 624-3060 or through our contact form for a confidential consultation. There is no cost or obligation to do so.



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.