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San Diego County settles million dollar jail death lawsuit

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Posted at 6:16 PM, Jun 08, 2021

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - The County of San Diego will pay $1 million to the family of a man who committed suicide in a San Diego County jail.

Ivan Ortiz died in March 2019.

His family sued the county shortly after Ortiz died, claiming his suicide was avoidable.

In a death investigation review, the County of San Diego's Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board said, "The evidence supported that staff failed to keep a suicidal inmate safe from self-harm and the conduct was not justified."

Speaking through a translator, Ortiz's mom, Maria Palacios, told ABC 10News reporter Adam Racusin that the past two years have been lengthy and difficult.

"For us, we just cried," she said. "It's really hard to conceptualize everything that's happened. It's really hard for me."

According to San Diego County records, in 2018, Ortiz was arrested and charged with attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

After his arrest, Ortiz was housed at the San Diego County Central jail where he died.

"Going to jail in San Diego County shouldn't be a death sentence, but sadly for too many people, that's what it's turning out to be," said attorney Brody McBride representing Ortiz’s family.

According to the lawsuit his family filed against the County of San Diego, the Sheriff's Department, and several county employees, jail staff knew Ortiz had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had a history of suicidality -- thoughts of suicide.

RELATED: Inmate dies at San Diego Central Jail

The lawsuit says, "prior to March 18, 2019, Ivan had at least one documented suicide attempt while in County custody at Central Jail."

On the morning of March 17, 2019, the lawsuit says jail staff found Ivan sitting in his Psychiatric Stabilization unit cell with a mark around this neck indicating he had just tried to strangle himself.

The filing states, "Jail staff then found a noose made from a towel in Ivan's cell. Ivan told jail staff he was ‘feeling sad and depressed,’ and he felt like ‘ending his life.’ He told jail staff he was hearing voices telling him to hurt and/or kill himself."

According to a review by the County of San Diego's Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), Ortiz was medically evaluated and placed in an observation cell with suicide precautions.

The review board document states, "Ortiz was given a breakfast meal in a plastic bag, which he retained and concealed for almost twelve hours. Because Ortiz had ‘suicide precautions,’ security checks were done every 13 minutes. Video evidence confirmed that Ortiz's last movement(s) were at 3:40 p.m. and he was discovered by staff approximately eight minutes later. The evidence supported that staff failed to keep a suicidal inmate safe from self-harm and the conduct was not justified."

The review board also sustained a finding that a deputy failed to remove an object used for self-harm.

According to the review board's finding, "Detentions Policies J.1, Safety Cells, and J.4, Enhanced Observation Housing, mirror one another in their requirement that a deputy providing a meal must ensure there are no items that the inmate may use to inflict injury to self."

The review board document says following Ortiz's death, San Diego County Sheriff's Department updated its staff and policies to implement additional precautionary measures to prevent further loss of life.

In a statement to ABC 10News, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Department wrote, "Our department concurred with CLERB's recommendations and modified our policy related to J.5 Inmate Suicide Prevention Practices and Inmate Safety Program. I've attached the revised policy. The Sheriff's Department is committed to the safety and well-being of individuals in our care and custody."

Attorneys for the family called changes at the department the bare minimum.

"The issue here is that even with the policies, even if they have them, they aren't being followed," said attorney Adam Hepburn, also representing Ortiz’s family.

Palacios says she hopes others in a similar situation as her son get better care.

"Thinking about my son and feeling as though I can still see him, I can still visit him if it had only been for better care," she said.

A spokesperson for the County of San Diego says including the Palacios settlement, which was $1 million, there were 73 lawsuits and claims (that includes traffic accidents) involving the Sheriff's Department that were resolved from May 1, 2020, through May 31, 2021. The total amount paid out on all 73 cases was $14,279,315.91.

Anyone who needs information on how to handle a mental health crisis can call the Access and Crisis Line at 1-888-724-7240. The line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.