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Ethridge v. Fort Bend County

United States District Court, S.D. Texas

July 25, 2019

Eugene Ethridge, Sr., et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
Fort Bend County, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION ON SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Lynn N. Hughes United States District Judge.

         1. Background.

         Late in the evening on November 1, 2015, Eugene Ethridge, Jr., was arrested for driving while intoxicated while two of his minor children were in his truck. The minors were placed with their mother, Ashley Yates. The truck was towed. Upon being arrested, Ethridge was first taken to Fort Bend County Jail, then taken to Oakbend Medical Center where blood and other fluids were drawn for the criminal case. He was returned to the jail, completed an initial medical screening, and was placed in the detoxification unit. After detox released him, he completed a suicide screening form. He denied having (a) suicidal thoughts, at that time or ever, (b) depression, and (c) ever attempted suicide. Ethridge was not fitted in a suicide smock nor placed in a padded cell. He was assigned a general population, one-man cell (40-17), and given standard clothing.

         During the overnight shift of November 2-3, Officer Brandon Satchell was assigned to the 4G and 4H cell units, housing Ethridge. His shift was from ten p.m. until six a.m. Satchell was then replaced by Deputy Darren Patton for the next shift. According to jail practice, jailers are to make face-to-face rounds every sixty minutes. Satchell admits to skipping one of his face-to-face rounds and falsifying his rounds sheet.

         On November 3, Ethridge did not leave his cell for breakfast. A little before six a.m., the shift changed. Deputy Patton made his rounds and he discovered Ethridge's body dangling from his bed sheet that he had tied to a shelf. Ethridge was pronounced dead shortly after being freed from the sheet. He had committed suicide. Officer Satchell was fired.

         2. The Lawsuit.

         The plaintiffs are Eugene Ethridge, Sr., father of the decedent; Tyler Broussard, adult son of the decedent; Ashley Yates, fiance and mother of two of the decedent's children; and Debbie Alexander, mother of two of the decedent's children. Not one of these plaintiffs was present when Ethridge wrecked his truck, was arrested, was transported to the medical center or to jail. Not one has direct personal knowledge of the suicidal ideations of Ethridge, that night or ever. No. affidavit or record about his mental condition has been offered. No. one has personal knowledge of anything that happened in the cell that early morning of November 3. The defendants are Sheriff Troy Nehls (who was not present at the jail during the incident), Brandon Satchell, and Fort Bend County, Texas.

         3. The Form.

         In October 2015, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards sent Fort Bend County an At-Risk letter. That responded to an earlier inmate suicide. The letter said that "toe failure to observe the inmate within thirty minutes occurred prior to his death and did not contribute to bis death in any manner." The Commission mandated Fort Bend - and all other county jails in Texas - to use its revised intake screening form by December 1, 2015. The old form was used during Ethridge's November intake. The old form had five questions on depression and suicide, and the new form has five questions on depression and suicide. Despite these questions, Ethridge denied being depressed or suicidal, marking no to each question.

         4. The Buzzer.

         Each jail cell has an intercom button for an inmate to press at any time. The jailer on duty can hear and respond to the call. Jailers respond to the button use by inmates without knowing the need, whether urgent or not. It is unclear whether Ethridge used his button during the overnight shift from November 2 to 3. No. verifiable evidence shows if Ethridge did in fact use it.

         Three affidavits - from fellow inmates - show agreement that an intercom button was pushed. Inmate One recalls that all[1]of the inmates heard the buzzing and started shouting. It went on, he insists, for about 20 minutes. He looked for an officer from inside his cell, but he did not see one in the picket, nor one doing rounds.

         Inmate Two shares Inmate One's experience. However, from his cell location, he was able to see inside of Ethridge's cell. He claims to have seen Ethridge himself pressing the button and yelling for an officer's assistance.

         Inmate Three echoes the statements of the other two. He woke up to the button being pressed. From his cell location, he insists that he also saw Ethridge himself pressing the ...


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