Between August 2021 and January 2022, Cumberland County settled federal lawsuits filed by the families of four inmates who had committed suicide in the Cumberland County Jail between 2014 and 2017. The families claimed that jail officials and employees of CFG Health Systems, LLC, the private vendor that provides inmates with health services, failed to properly screen the inmates for any suicidal tendencies and also failed to monitor and protect them.

Of the $672,500 total settlement amount, $529,350 was paid by Cumberland County or its insurer and the remaining $143,150 was paid by another defendant, likely CFG. Since CFG is a private company, it is not required to respond to Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests for settlement agreements.

The four cases are:

Estate of Robert Wayne Lewis v. Cumberland County, Case No. 1:2016-cv-3503

According to a March 13, 2018 opinion by U.S. District Judge Jerome B. Simandle, Robert Wayne Lewis was found hanging in the shower on October 29, 2015 and died the next day. His estate argued that jail officials and CFG employees failed to protect Lewis even though they were aware of prior attempts to commit suicide.

According to a October 30, 2015 NJ.com article, (“Cumberland County Jail prisoner dies in apparent suicide,” by Don E. Woods), Lewis was arrested by Vineland Police on a robbery charge and held on $100,000 bail.

An exhibit attached to an April 13, 2022 affidavit seeking to determine how the settlement proceeds are to be distributed among Lewis’ heirs and his attorney states that the gross settlement amount was $157,500. However, the settlement agreement at the link below shows that the settlement was “$129,350 on behalf of the County of Cumberland.” The remaining $28,150 must have come from another defendant, likely CFG.

The court opinion and settlement agreement are on-line here.

Estate of David Hennis v. Cumberland County, et al, Case No. 1:2016-cv-4216

According to the estate’s lawsuit, on July 30, 2014, David Hennis was found hanging in a holding cell within the jail’s infirmary after he had been banging on the cell door for more than half an hour “in a futile attempt to the get the attention of” jail or CFG employees.

According to a July 15, 2016 nj.com article, (“Cumberland jail hit with 3rd lawsuit over inmates deaths by hanging,” by Don E. Woods), Hennis, then 31, was being held under $30,000 bail for charges of violation of a court order, aggravated assault, possession of a weapon for unlawful purpose and unlawful possession of a weapon.

According to the release, the total settlement amount was $140,000 with $105,000 being paid on behalf of Cumberland County and $35,000 on behalf of CFG.

The estate’s lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

Estate of Jon Leon Watson v. Cumberland County, et al, Case No. 1:2016-cv-6578

According to a January 9, 2020 opinion by U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez, on June 3, 2016 Jon Leon Watson was found by another inmate hanging in his cell. Officer Rowe responded, entered the cell but allegedly “panicked” and did not perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Watson was later pronounced deceased.

According to a June 9, 2016 nj.com article, (“Family wants investigation of apparent jail suicide, attorney says,” by Don E. Woods), Watson, who was 43 at the time, was being held on charges of eluding police, resisting arrest and driving while suspended.

An exhibit attached to an April 13, 2022 affidavit seeking to determine how the settlement proceeds are to be distributed among Watson’s heirs and his attorney states that the gross settlement amount was $200,000. However, the settlement agreement at the link below shows that the settlement was “$155,000 on behalf of the County of Cumberland.” The remaining $45,000 must have come from another defendant, likely CFG.

The court opinion and settlement agreement are on-line here.

Estate of Alissa Marie Allen v. Cumberland County, et al, Case No. 1:2015-cv-6273

According to a June 27, 2017 opinion by U.S. District Judge Jerome B. Simandle, Alissa Marie Allen was discovered hanging in her cell on March 22, 2015. According to a August 19, 2015 article on nj.com, (“Wrongful death suit filed against N.J. jail after woman commits suicide in custody,” by Rebecca Forand), Allen, who was 24 at the time, was stopped the night before her death in Millville for an outstanding traffic warrant and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia and not wearing a seatbelt. She was held on $728 bail, according to the article.

According to the release, the total settlement amount was $175,000 with $140,000 being paid on behalf of county and $35,000 on behalf of CFG.

The court opinion and settlement agreement are on-line here.

The plaintiffs’ attorney for all four cases was the Law Offices of Conrad J. Benedetto of Cherry Hill. While the settlement amounts are final, the courts are still determining how the amounts will be distributed among the decedent’s heirs and attorneys.

In addition to the above, there are three additional lawsuits:

Estate of David Conroy, Case No. 1:17-cv-07183/1:18-cv-14184

Conroy, then 32, was found hanging in his cell on May 27, 2017. See a May 31, 2017 NJ.com article, “Inmate who hanged self was on suicide watch in Cumberland jail,” by Bill Gallo. According to an April 14, 2022 letter filed with the Court, the County and Conroy’s estate “have reached an agreement in principle” but that the releases hadn’t yet been signed.

Estate of Megan Moore, Case No. 1:17-cv-02839/1:18-cv-16345

Moore of Millville, then 21, was found hanging in her cell on February 20, 2017. See a May 13, 2018 Daily Journal article, “Judge dismisses jail suicide liability claim against healthcare company,” by Joseph T. Smith. The County’s attorney filed an April 14, 2022 letter with the Court that, like in the Conroy case, informed the court that a settlement agreement had been reached “in principle.”

Estate of Gregory Kubiak, Case No. 1:20-cv-09478

Kubiak of Vineland, then 32, was found hanging in his cell on November 17, 2018. See a November 21, 2018 NJ.com article, “Inmate in Cumberland County jail becomes 7th suicide in 3 years,” by Chris Franklin.

According to an April 21, 2022 order entered by U.S. District Magistrate Judge Sharon A. King, Kubiak’s estate’s lawsuit has been “stayed and administratively terminated pending the resolution of the parallel criminal matter” involving Richard Cotto, who was named as a defendant in Kubiak’s estate’s lawsuit. According to the lawsuit, “at some point during Defendant Cotto’s shift at Cumberland County Jail, Defendant Cotto hung a trash bag in a manner obscuring a camera’s view inside H-block” so that he could avoid having to monitor Kubiak and other inmates.

Cotto has been charged with second degree official misconduct and third degree charges of endangering another person and tampering with public records, according to a December 17, 2019 NJ.com article “Corrections officer indicted on 3 crimes in prisoner’s suicide,” by Matt Gray. According to the article, Cotto is “accused of failing to perform routine checks on . . . Kubiak, then noting in a log that he had done the checks.”

All the settlement agreement contain confidentiality clauses, under which the decedent’s families promised not to disclose the settlement terms or amount. Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public’s right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of lawsuit’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the employees or officials named in the lawsuit. All that is known for sure is that the Cumberland County, CFG and the other defendants, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the settlement amounts than take the matters to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases resolve before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to paff@pobox.com