Crime & Justice

LA County pays $1.7 million to settle jail suicide lawsuit

The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles.
The Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $1.7 million payment Tuesday to settle a lawsuit brought by the daughters of a man who committed suicide in the Twin Towers jail. The suit had alleged that jail mental health officials failed to properly diagnose Eric Loberg’s mental state and the degree to which he was a suicide risk.

The 48-year-old Loberg, diagnosed as schizophrenic, died after jumping from a second-level railing at the downtown jail facility in Nov. 2014. He had been placed under the conservatorship of the L.A. County Public Guardian a year earlier on the grounds that his condition left him "gravely disabled" under the definition of the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act.

According to the complaint, 11 days prior to his death Loberg had escaped from Olive Vista, a private psychiatric hospital, where he had been committed for long-term treatment.

Pomona police subsequently located Loberg, but rather than send him to a psychiatric facility, they arrested him on charges of violating his probation for failing to contact his probation officer after leaving Olive Vista. He had a previous arrest for burglary.

This constituted the first breakdown in the handling of Loberg, said Ron Kaye, one of the lawyers representing Maria and Erica Loberg in their suit. "He should have been brought to a mental health facility rather than the County jail as he committed no crime and he was known to be suffering from schizophrenia," Kaye said in an email.

In a report to the supervisors, Dr. Jonathan Sherin, director of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, said a jail psychiatrist concluded that Loberg was at "low risk" for suicide, noting that he "had a normal mood and was not depressed, anxious or delusional," and that he calmly answered questions "appropriately."

Loberg was sent to a part of the jail where inmates are under "moderate" observation. The lawsuit argued that based on Loberg’s history, the psychiatrist should have had him admitted to the jail’s Forensic Inpatient Program, which the complaint describes as being for "mentally ill inmates who either present an acute danger to self or others, or are 'gravely disabled,' due to mental illness that requires in-patient care."

The psychiatrist prescribed risperidone, an antipsychotic medication. During his week in the observation unit prior to his death, Loberg only had "20 percent compliance" in taking the drug, but "did not have any incidents," according to Sherin’s report.

The report noted that at the time of Loberg’s death, the jail did not have a policy requiring its mental health staff to alert the conservator of a patient who was refusing medications.

Sherin said the county subsequently adopted a policy stating that when patients under conservatorship are not taking prescribed medications, "the Conservator will be notified as soon as possible of medication refusal."

Loberg’s death "reveals a perfect storm of deliberate indifference by County officials, both in the Sheriff’s Department and in the Department of Mental Health," charged Kaye.

"The only saving grace for Mr. Loberg’s children is that their father’s death is not completely in vain," he said, adding that the county's policy change "hopefully can save lives in the future."

The U.S. Department of Justice first found deficiencies in the L.A. jails' treatment of inmates with mental health issues 20 years ago. The county signed an agreement with Justice in 2002, agreeing to improve its practices, including in the area of suicide prevention.

In June 2014, Justice said that despite some progress, its review of the 2002 agreement had "found that other serious deficiencies in the mental health care delivery system remain and combine with inadequate supervision and deplorable environmental conditions to deprive prisoners of constitutionally-required mental health care." It documented 15 suicides over a nearly 30-month period.

The county and the department reached another agreement in Aug. 2015, in which L.A. committed to undertaking additional measure to protect prisoners from conditions that "place them at unreasonable risk of harm from suicide."