Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Mother’s Wrongful Death Lawsuit for Son’s Suicide in Jail Returned to Trial Court

A Warren County trial court must conduct further proceedings in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the mother of a county jail inmate who died by suicide, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that an appeal was prematurely considered in  Bonita Stewart’s lawsuit against Solutions Community Counseling and Recovery Centers, which provided mental health services for those in the Warren County jail.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in June. Today’s decision does not address the merits of the parties’ arguments, but returned the matter to the trial court for further consideration.

Counseling Center Claims Immunity From Liability in Inmate's Death
In 2016, 30-year-old Justin Stewart was an inmate in the county jail. While in jail, a court-ordered evaluation determined he needed mental health treatment. Solutions Counseling provided mental health services to Justin. While in the jail, Justin died by suicide.

In the lawsuit against Solutions Counseling and one of its counselors, Justin’s mother  made claims of wrongful death, negligence, and malpractice.

Solutions Counseling asked the trial court to dismiss the case, arguing the center should not be held responsible because R.C. 2305.51 gave it immunity from liability in Justin’s death.

In December 2020, the trial court disagreed, denying immunity for the center and the counselor. The court denied the request for dismissal and indicated its decision was a final appealable order.

Solutions Counseling appealed to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals, arguing that R.C. 2305.51’s purpose is to impose liability on mental health providers for a patient’s violent behavior in certain circumstances, and to provide immunity when the conditions are not met. In a 2-1 decision, the Twelfth District ruled the law applies when a patient causes physical harm or death only to someone else, but not to themselves. The Twelfth District upheld the trial court’s decision. The counseling center appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the law focuses on the violent behavior, not on the person on whom the violence is inflicted. Whether the victim is a third party or the patient, the counseling center is entitled to immunity and is not legally responsible for the patient’s violent behavior, the center maintained.

Supreme Court Assessed Lower Court Orders
The Supreme Court explained both it and the Twelfth District are only permitted to consider an appeal of a lower court’s final order.

Citing prior Supreme Court rulings, the opinion stated that “an order denying a motion to dismiss is not a final order.” Because the Twelfth District had no jurisdiction to consider the case, the Supreme Court vacated the appeals court ruling. The Court remanded the case to the trial court.

2021-1163. Stewart v. Solutions Community Counseling & Recovery Ctrs., Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-2522.

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