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Estate of Puza v. Carbon County

September 26, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley


Before the court for disposition in this case involving a prison suicide are motions for summary judgment filed by Defendant Crabtree, Rohrbaugh & Associates and one filed jointly by Carbon County, Angela Demyanovich, John Gablick, A. Orsulak, Ronald Peck, Sergeant Stever and John Doe (hereinafter "The County Defendants"). The motions have been briefed and argued. They are thus ripe for disposition.


Lansford Pennsylvania Police arrested Decedent Stephen Puza on February 20, 2002 after a domestic dispute with his wife, Helena. (Doc. 75-4, Deposition of Helena Barker-Puza at 47-49). He had been drinking alcohol and had thrown a kitchen knife at Helena who suffered no physical injuries. (Id.).

Lansford Police Chief James Strauss arrested Stephen and transported him to the Lansford Police station, to his preliminary arraignment and then to the jail for his detention. (Doc. 75-5, Deposition of James B. Strauss at 30- 31, 36, 38). He spent "at least" one and a half hours with him. (Id. at 97).

At the jail, Stephen met Defendant Angela Demyanovich, a corrections officer at the prison. (Doc. 75-10, Deposition of Angela Demyanovich at 30). She recognized Stephen evidently from a prior incarceration in 1999. (Id. 22, 40-4, 60). During a previous incarceration, this one in 1998, Stephen had been placed on suicide watch after indicating during the suicide screening that he would consider suicide if he "could find a nice way to do it." (Doc. 75-6, Suicide Screening Form 1998, ¶ 9).

Demyanovich completed a suicide screening form with Stephen that included a checklist of factors that the officers consider in determining whether a suicide watch is necessary. (Doc. 75-11, Suicide Screening From 2002). Upon completing the screening, Demyanovich concluded that Stephen was not a suicide risk and did not place him on a suicide watch. (Doc. 75-10, Deposition of Angela Demyanovich at 47-48).

After the suicide screening, Defendant A. Orsulak, another corrections officer, strip searched Stephen and took him for a shower. (Doc. 75-13, Orsulak's Incident Report). Stephen sang while showering. (Id.). Stephen was then placed in a cell.

Later on, Defendant Corrections Officer John Gablick observed Stephen crying when he passed his cell. (Doc. 75-14 Deposition of John Gablick at 12). Gablick again saw him crying, this time softly, approximately a half hour later. (Id. at 19). Defendant Gablick saw Stephen laying on his bed a half hour later, which was fifteen minutes before Gablick completed his shift. (Id. at 37, 41).

Defendant Ronald Peck came on duty when Gablick left. When he passed Stephen's cell at approximately 10:55 p.m., he noticed Stephen kneeling by the toilet. (Doc. 75-16, Deposition of Ronald Peck 49). Later, Peck passed the cell again and noticed Stephen still kneeling by the toilet. A few minutes later he returned, and Stephen was in the same position. Peck then banged on the door. When he received no response, Peck called for backup and upon entering the cell found that Stephen was dead. (Doc. 75-18, Peck's Incident Report).

Stephen had removed his shoelace, tied it to a ventilation grate above the toilet and tied the other end around his neck. He then strangled himself by kneeling in front of the toilet and applying pressure to his neck. (Id.)

Plaintiffs instituted the instant action against both the County Defendants and the architects who designed the prison. The claims against the County Defendants are for civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the claims against the architects sound in negligence. At the close of discovery two motions for summary judgment were filed, one by the County Defendants and one by the architects. We will address each set of defendants separately and develop the facts with regard to each motion below where appropriate.


As this case is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of federal constitutional rights, we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."). We have supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff's state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

Standard of review

Granting summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Knabe v. Boury, 114 F.3d 407, 410 n.4 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)). "[T]his standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original).

In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must examine the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. International Raw Materials, Ltd. v. Stauffer Chemical Co., 898 F.2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (1986). A fact is material when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. Where the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by showing that the evidentiary materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the non-movant's burden of proof at trial. Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the moving party satisfies its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party, who must go beyond its pleadings, and designate specific facts by the use of affidavits, depositions, admissions, or answers to interrogatories showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.


We will first discuss the claims raised by CRA.

I. CRA's Claims

CRA advances the following arguments: 1) As a matter of law, a prison architect cannot be liable for the suicide of an inmate; 2) Even if defendant CRA had a duty to prevent prison suicides, it did not breach that duty because it did not select the grille from which decedent hung himself and it did not determine the height of the vent; and 3) Summary judgment is warranted because plaintiffs failed to file a timely certificate of merit or motion for extension as required by Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1042. We will address these issues in seriatim.

A. Architect Liability for Prison Suicide

CRA's initial argument is that as a matter of law, an architect cannot be held liable in tort for the suicide of a prisoner in a prison it designed. The parties have cited no Pennsylvania cases that are directly on point, and our research has uncovered none. The general rule, under Pennsylvania law, however, is that liability cannot be imposed upon third parties for another's suicide. McPeake v. Cannon, 553 A.2d 439, 440-41 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1989). The Superior Court has explained: "Generally, suicide has not been recognized as a legitimate basis for recovery in wrongful death cases. This is so because suicide constitutes an independent intervening act so extraordinary as not to have been reasonably foreseeable by the original tortfeasor." Id.

Several exceptions to the general rule exist. For example, a hospital, mental health institution or mental health professional with a custodial relationship with the decedent has a recognized duty of care. Id. at 441. If the decedent was not associated with a hospital or mental health institution, there must be a clear showing of a duty to prevent the suicide and a direct causal connection between the alleged negligence and the suicide. Id. The third exception is a wrongful death action brought under the worker's compensation statute. Id.

In the instant case, CRA did not have a custodial relationship with the decedent. Additionally, this case does not involve a wrongful death action brought under the worker's compensation statute. Thus, CRA does not fall under these exceptions. The only other exception possible is whether there is a clear showing of a duty to prevent the suicide and a direct causal connection between the alleged negligence and the suicide. The plaintiffs have also failed to establish this exception.

As noted above, Pennsylvania courts have not addressed this issue; however, the jurisdictions that have specifically addressed the issue have held that an architect cannot be held liable for a prison suicide. For example, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has noted, in applying Oregon law, that the mere fact that a prisoner finds a way to commit suicide in a standard jail cell does not give rise to liability on the part of the architect who designed the cell. Lyche Estate v. Washington County, 171 Fed. Appx. 217, 218 (9th Cir. 2006). In Lyche, the prison had been turned over to the county approximately one year before the suicide. The court explained that any other approach besides the "no liability" approach would "risk exposing jail architects to endless suicide liability despite a county's own decisions about design and about placement of prisoners in particular cells within a facility." Id. (internal quotation marks and footnote omitted). See also, Bruzga v. PMR Architects, P.C., 693 A.2d 401, 403 (N.H. 1997) ("We refuse to extend suicide liability to architects, contractors, engineers, and a vast array of other parties involved with the design and construction of buildings . . . . Architects and contractors should not be exposed to endless suicide liability when they have relinquished their authority and control over the facility to the owner."); La Bombarbe v. Phillips Swager Associates, Inc., 474 N.E.2d 942, 944-45 (Ill. App. Ct. 1985)("The magnitude of the burden placed on architects to eliminate all fixtures, such as grilles, that might be of aid in the commission of a suicide and, at the same time, to design an attractive and feasible cell at a reasonable cost would seem to be great."); Tittle v. Giattina, Fisher & Co., Architects, Inc., 597 So.2d 679, 681 (Ala.1992)("We hold . . . that an architect designing a prison or jail owes no duty to design the prison or jail to suicide-proof.").

Based upon these cases, and the absence of authority from the Pennsylvania courts, we find that plaintiffs have failed to establish a clear duty on the part of the architects to the prevent the decedent's suicide or that CRA's actions directly caused the suicide. Accordingly, none of the exceptions to the general rule that prohibits recovery from third party for the suicide of another applies, and summary judgment for CRA is appropriate.

As we have found that the architects cannot be held liable for the suicide we need not address the other two issues raised by CRA, that is that they did not select the grille at issue or the height of the vent. We also need not address their ...

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