Wrongful Death Lawsuit Filed Following Suicide in Clackamas County Jail

A complaint filed earlier this month alleges that the county contractor providing medical care was short-staffed and negligent.

Sunset over Happy Valley in Clackamas County. (JPL Designs/Shutterstock)

In 2021, Rhonda Burke was booked twice in one week in Clackamas County Jail, charged with violating a restraining order. Burke suffered from schizophrenia and was agitated and delusional. A nurse ordered her to be monitored around the clock.

Three days into her second stay at the jail, Burke died by suicide. A wrongful death lawsuit filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Portland alleges her death was due to negligent care by jail staff.

Burke had been placed in isolation within two days of her second booking in jail. And, the lawsuit alleges, she was denied medication to treat her acute alcohol withdrawal. As she banged on the walls of her cell in agony, neighboring inmates screamed at her to kill herself, the legal filing says. Around 30 hours later, she died by suicide.

On May 16, her family filed a $20 million lawsuit accusing Clackamas County, its Alabama-based medical contractor NaphCare, and their employees of “gross negligence.” The facility was short-staffed and there was no licensed physician present at the time of Burke’s death, the lawsuit alleges.

NaphCare, a private company with reported revenues of more than $300 million, did not respond to a request for comment. County officials declined to comment.

The lawsuit treads familiar ground. Jermelle Madison Jr., 23, hanged himself in Clackamas County Jail two months later. He was suffering from a mental health crisis and had told arresting officers he was going to kill himself. After his suicide, protesters took to the streets demanding to know why he hadn’t been put on suicide watch.

NaphCare, which operates nationwide and recently contracted with Washington and Clackamas counties, has long faced similar accusations across the country. Last year, New York state regulators slammed the company’s “deficient” care following the suicide of a 27-year-old woman. A jury in Washington awarded a $27 million settlement to the family of a man who died while withdrawing from heroin in a Spokane County jail last year.

Washington County is also facing ongoing litigation. The family of Dale Thomsen has accused the county and NaphCare of negligence after the 58-year-old man was found dead in his cell. He was not given a medical exam despite his family warning the jail he was an alcoholic and suffered from a brain injury, the lawsuit alleges.

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