Kern County has agreed to pay the estate of a man who died by suicide in Lerdo Jail $2 million as part of a lawsuit settlement.
The plaintiffs in the case, which had lasted for more than a year and a half, alleged that law enforcement staff ignored signs of mental instability exhibited by Sergio Derkevorkian, 29, leading up to his death.
Derkevorkian was found unresponsive in his cell on May 7, 2016. He was pronounced dead at San Joaquin Hospital the next day.
The Kern County coroner's office later said he had hanged himself. He had been in custody for five days.
“It was a real tragedy, and it seems it should have been prevented at multiple stages during his incarceration,” said Kevin LaHue, an attorney with Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt LLP, which represented Derkevorkian’s estate. “He came in and he was presenting this bizarre, erratic behavior. And he was never referred to mental health despite the fact that they have mental health staff on the premises.”
The Kern County Counsel’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did officials with the Sheriff’s Office.
Derkevorkian was arrested by California Highway Patrol officers on May 3 after he called 911 about 3 a.m. to report he had been involved in a single-vehicle accident on Silver Queen Road near Highway 14 in Mojave, according to the lawsuit.
When officers arrived at the scene, he reportedly requested to be arrested, saying “I’m a danger to myself,” the lawsuit documents state.
A CHP officer determined that Derkevorkian was under the influence of a controlled substance and placed him under arrest.
After a drug recognition evaluation conducted at the CHP Mojave substation, in which Derkevorkian became increasingly paranoid and disillusioned, the lawsuit states, the CHP transported him to Kern Medical Center.
During the trip, he reportedly unbuckled his seatbelt and “constantly” looked out the rear windows, stating that the grim reaper was behind him and he was afraid.
Once at KMC, the lawsuit says Derkevorkian began to cry and scream, falsely accusing CHP officers of placing drugs inside his body.
When a nurse gave him a cup of water, he reportedly said she had poisoned the water.
After having his blood drawn, the CHP transported Derkevorkian to the county’s Central Receiving Facility, where he said doctors had placed drugs in his body.
Deputies conducted a body scan on Derkevorkian to check for drugs, but none were found.
The deputies then conducted a medical screening on Derkevorkian, which was intended to determine if he suffered from mental health issues.
Despite Derkevorkian’s erratic behavior, which continued during the screening, the lawsuit alleges, the deputy that conducted the screening sped through the process, paraphrasing some questions and omitting others.
The deputy later said she purposefully asked the questions quickly to minimize her interaction with Derkevorkian, according to the lawsuit. She said she had been trained to go quickly, which another deputy disputed.
LaHue said Derkevorkian's behavior should have prompted a call to the county’s mental health professionals, where a trained professional can make an assessment.
But deputies determined that Derkevorkian was under the influence and placed him in temporary administrative segregation.
He remained at the Central Receiving Facility until his arraignment in Kern Superior Court on May 5. He was charged with driving under the influence and being under the influence of drugs.
His bail was set at $2,500 and transported to Lerdo Jail to await his next court appearance on May 12.
The lawsuit says that according to the jail’s policy, Derkevorkian should have received an interview to classify his mental health status when he was transferred.
He was not.
A day later, a family friend called the Central Receiving Facility to warn law enforcement that Derkevorkian was suicidal.
No action was taken, and the next day Derkevorkian was found unresponsive.
Derkevorkian’s estate sued the county, alleging the county acted with deliberate indifference to Derkevorkian’s medical needs and safety.
“You can imagine the pain from the family,” LaHue said. “They are still grieving.”
He said he hoped the lawsuit would prompt changes in the county’s policies, and he complimented the county for taking the lawsuit seriously.
“I give (the county) a lot of credit that something unconstitutional occurred here, and they are doing right by his family,” he said.