U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Guard Allegedly Encouraged Inmate's Suicide, Reviving Lawsuit

Ever have one of those days when everything seems to go wrong?

From the moment you roll out of bed and stub your toe, you know it's going to be one of those days. That's how it must have felt for Joan Mullin, only much worse.

She sued prison officials for contributing to her son's suicide. Then her lawyer misfiled some key evidence, and her case was dismissed.

Fortunately, Murphy's law is not a real law. Mullin finally got some relief from the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Mullin v. Balicki.

Suicide History

On Jan. 17, 2009, Robert Mullin hanged himself with a bedsheet he had made into a noose. He had been in and out of prison for a decade, often because of substance abuse.

He died at New Jersey's Central Reception & Assignment Facility, where he was left in a cell with little supervision. His mother sued, saying staffers should have known of her son's suicide history and failed to act reasonably to protect him from himself.

After the defendants moved to dismiss, Mullin's attorney received a key report through discovery. It revealed, according to a report, that a prison guard "ignored Robert's requests for mental services and, instead, told him to commit suicide."

Unfortunately, the plaintiff's attorney misfiled the report and didn't learn about the revelation until it was too late. The lawyer tried to work it in to a third amended complaint, but the trial judge denied the request and found no evidence that any defendant was liable for the death.

Attorney's Error

The appeals court focused on whether the attorney's error could be excused. The trial court said it should not be excused, but the appellate panel disagreed.

Misunderstandings of law or procedure are not usually excused, the judges said, but clerical errors can be. In Mullin's case, the attorney made a clerical error by misfiling the report and that could be excusable neglect.

The Third Circuit remanded the case to the trial court, directing the judge to weigh the new evidence and decide whether it warrants another amended complaint.

The ruling also gave Mullin -- and her lawyer -- a chance for a better day.

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