JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri House members on Wednesday approved legislation that supporters hope will reduce lawsuits stemming from suicides at jails.
The measure would require that anyone who sues because of a suicide prove the jail or detention center was grossly negligent — a legal standard that Rep. Mike Kelley said is designed to be tougher and block meritless lawsuits.
Missouri law does not define "gross negligence," so developing the standard could ultimately be left to the courts.
Kelley, R-Lamar, said he would like to limit lawsuits over suicides to when jail officials knew or had reason to think an inmate was likely to attempt suicide but took no steps to prevent it. He said no jailer or corrections officer wants inmates to harm themselves or others in their facility.
"By making the burden harder, I believe it will protect the Missouri taxpayers and protect those institutions," Kelley said. "I do not believe that our correction officers are going to lower their standard of care."
Kelley, who said the idea of toughening the legal standard came from a local prosecutor, said there have been several lawsuits over suicides that were expensive to defend. Many are settled to avoid big legal bills, he said.
The prosecuting attorney for western Missouri's Barton County testified in favor of the legislation when the measure was considered by a House committee in February. Another supporter, who previously worked as a guard at an Illinois prison, questioned whether it was fair to hold jails and other facilities responsible if someone wants to commit suicide.
The House on Wednesday approved the measure 86-67, sending it to the Senate.
Opponents said making it harder to sue after someone commits suicide could lead to diminished mental health care and vigilance in jails and prisons.
Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, said requiring "gross negligence" in such cases could allow many people off the hook that probably should face repercussions. He said the legal standard adopted by the legislation amounts to "your conduct was so outrageous that people would look at you like you're an idiot."