LOS ANGELES – The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to pay nearly $1 million to settle two lawsuits brought by the wife of a 58-year-old Palmdale man who hung himself in a county jail cell in 2013.
Kurt Guenther — whose obituary described him as an Air Force veteran and aerospace engineer — was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer and a firefighter.
Guenther told deputies he wanted to kill himself and was placed on suicide watch while at the sheriff’s Palmdale station, according to a summary provided to the board.
He was seen by staff at Palmdale Regional Medical Center before he was transferred downtown to the county jail system’s Inmate Reception Center.
Paperwork sent along with Guenther to the IRC, indicating that he was at risk of suicide, wasn’t forwarded to the clinical social worker who evaluated him at the jail, according to the summary.
Guenther told that clinician that he wasn’t thinking of suicide. He was assessed as having a “sad” mood and sent to Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
Three days later, radiologists alerted the jail that Guenther might have tuberculosis. Before transferring him to an isolation cell, a social worker conducted a psychiatric evaluation and Guenther said he wasn’t thinking of hurting himself or anyone else.
About 52 hours after that evaluation was completed, Guenther was found hanging in his cell.
Guenther’s wife, Martha, filed two lawsuits, one in Los Angeles and one in federal court, against the Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Mental Health, alleging that her husband’s civil rights had been violated.
County lawyers recommended settling the two cases for $999,995, citing the “risks and uncertainties of litigation,” according to board documents.
A 2014 assessment by the Department of Justice found that 15 inmates committed suicide in 30 months in Los Angeles County lockups and that some of those deaths could have been prevented.
The agency concluded that despite continued federal prodding, the Los Angeles County jail system failed to sufficiently protect mentally ill inmates and violated their civil rights. The assessment cited “widespread lapses with regard to basic supervision of prisoners at risk” and a “suicide review process that often includes inaccurate information.”
Clinical staff are now required to complete a formal suicide risk assessment checklist on all mental health clients evaluated at the Inmate Reception Center.