Cochise County Suggests Psychiatrist May Be At Fault For 2018 Jail Hanging

Mathis family
Clay Mathis with members of his family in 2018 just weeks before he hanged himself in the Cochise County jail. [Photo courtesy of Jerral Mathis]

Since it happened in September 2018, Cochise County and Sheriff Mark Dannels have denied any liability for the suicide by hanging of an inmate at the county jail in Bisbee, but now they are suggesting that if substandard care was provided, then a doctor under contract with the county’s health department may be at fault.

On May 26, the attorney for the county defendants filed a Notice of Non-Party at Fault in the wrongful death and medical malpractice lawsuit related to the death of Clay Wallace Mathis, who died Sept. 12, 2018 after hanging himself in his cell the day before. He was in jail for allegedly stealing his father’s car and possessing methamphetamine for personal use.

The notice names Dr. Laurence Schiff as the non-party, which is another way of describing someone not named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Schiff is a psychiatrist from Kingman under contract with Cochise County.

“To the extent that Plaintiff claims that the medical/mental health care at the jail was substandard and was a cause of the death of Clay Mathis, then Dr. Schiff may be at fault regarding this claim,” reads the county defendants’ notice.   “Dr. Schiff is not an employee of the Sheriff or Cochise County. Dr. Schiff is an independent contractor providing medical/mental health services for the jail.”

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At the time, Mathis’ death was the third suicide by hanging at a Cochise County jail in six years. Other deaths have resulted in lawsuits against the sheriff, but this one filed by Jerral P. Mathis as statutory beneficiary of his son also alleges negligence by the Cochise County Health Department which is responsible for the medical and mental health care at the county’s three jail locations.

According to the lawsuit, Clay Mathis had a well-documented history of mental illness when he was booked into jail Aug. 10, 2018. The same day, a Crisis Mobile Team Intervention report noted issues with his behavior and there were notes made at the jail that Mathis admitted to a prior suicide attempt and didn’t know why he was in jail.

Then 10 days after his arrest, Mathis was evaluated by Schiff. In his report, Schiff noted Mathis “was not psychotic or suicidal” and that his mood and judgment appeared fine.

Despite that finding, Mathis’ behavior in the days after the evaluation resulted in him being placed under special watch. Among other things, special watch requires a staff member to check on an inmate about every 30 minutes, but it is not the same as a suicide watch.

It was during one of those checks on Sept. 11, 2018 that Clay Mathis was found unresponsive in his cell with a sheet around his neck. It was his 31st birthday. He died the next day at a Tucson hospital.

Jerral Mathis alleges jail records “failed to document” a complete mental status exam, a suicide risk assessment, or the circumstances of his son’s previous suicide attempts. In response, Dannels and Cochise County filed a list of affirmative defenses, including Mathis’ failure “to notify jail staff or medical staff that he was considering suicide” and his father’s purported failure “to provide any information about Clay’s mental illness” during his son’s incarceration.

Now, the nonparty notice brings the county defendants in compliance with a pretrial court rule which requires the identification of any other person not named in the lawsuit whom a defendant “alleges was wholly or partly at fault.”  With Schiff named, a jury could reduce the percentage of fault allocated against Dannels and Cochise, if the jury finds any fault occurred.

The next deadlines in the case are July 27 when Mathis must disclose the identity and opinion of all expert witnesses who may be called to testify and Aug. 3 when all parties must disclose their non-expert trial witnesses. Despite those deadlines, a trial date won’t be decided until early next year.

A scheduling order signed by Judge David Thorn indicates an eight-day jury trial is expected sometime in spring 2021. Public records show county officials turned down a $1 million settlement offer made by the father in March 2019.

After Clay Mathis’ death, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner performed an external examination in order to determine cause and manner of death. No toxicology testing was conducted, according to Dr. Greg Hess, the chief medical examiner.

Hess told Arizona Daily Independent that toxicology tests conducted one week after the hanging would not have provided useful information given that Mathis had been administered various drugs as part of emergency medical intervention.