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As trial opens, Armor, Nassau jail deny fault in Marine vet’s suicide

Nassau County Correctional Facility on Friday, March 11,

Nassau County Correctional Facility on Friday, March 11, 2016 in East Meadow. Credit: Howard Schnapp

If the Nassau jail’s medical provider hadn’t failed in its duty to properly treat Bartholomew Ryan, the Iraq War veteran wouldn’t have killed himself behind bars in 2012, a lawyer for the late inmate’s family told federal court jurors Thursday.

However, the trial in the wrongful-death claim against Armor Correctional Health Services, Nassau County, its jail and sheriff’s department, also began with the defendants denying any negligence or responsibility for the 32-year-old man’s suicide.

The Ryan family’s lawsuit also claims Armor was deliberately indifferent to the honorably discharged Marine Corps sergeant’s medical needs and violated his constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.

Ryan was suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder after his war zone deployment, along with bipolar disorder and anxiety as he also battled drug addiction, plaintiff’s attorney Nicholas Warywoda said.

The Bellmore man also had been a heroin user after an opiate addiction that followed prescription painkiller use from an old boot camp groin injury. He was in jail on a charge of driving while under the influence of drugs.

“Bart made a commitment to defend our country . . . he did his job . . . and because of that, he suffered mental issues,” said Warywoda, who showed jurors a framed portrait of Ryan in his military uniform.

“When it came time for Armor to protect the health and safety of Bart, they failed him,” the attorney said. “He was deemed a suicide risk, and if they had just followed that finding, we wouldn’t be here today.”

The Ryan lawsuit, which seeks compensatory and punitive damages, is the first case to go to trial out of four federal claims filed by the families of inmates who have died at Nassau’s jail since Armor first won a contract in 2011. In those four fatalities and another, the state Commission of Correction found Armor’s care deficient.

Warywoda also said in the Central Islip courtroom that while most of the fault for Ryan’s death falls on Armor, Nassau County also is liable because officials “failed to properly train their correction officers.”

However, county lawyer James Scott emphasized that evidence will show Nassau jail officials properly supervised and housed Ryan, and the county isn’t to blame for the inmate’s death.

Armor attorney John Doody called Ryan’s suicide “unforeseeable,” saying the medical provider wasn’t negligent and didn’t violate Ryan’s rights.

Doody also asked jurors to put aside sympathy and to focus on the facts, adding that Ryan deserved gratitude for his military service “either when he is with us or when he chose not to be with us.”

In Ryan’s case, the Commission of Correction found an Armor psychiatrist did an inadequate assessment of the inmate hours before he hanged himself on Feb. 24, 2012, with a bedsheet in his jail cell.

But Armor had said in a 2013 letter to the state oversight agency that it disagreed with that finding. Armor executive Karen Davies also wrote there was “no evidence” Ryan had ideas about suicide “at any time prior to the terminal event.”

Ryan served in the military from 2003 to 2007, but his family has said the decorated Marine came back from eight months of combat as a different person. He went through a series of drug-related arrests and vehicular crashes, his marriage ended and he couldn’t hold a steady job.

The 1998 East Meadow High School graduate killed himself less than 48 hours after his jail intake.

Testimony showed a correction official gave Ryan a failing grade on his suicide screening at intake, put him on “constant observation” status and referred him for a mental health exam because Ryan denied suicidal thoughts but said he’d been taking psychiatric medication.

But Warywoda said that while nurses saw Ryan, an Armor psychiatrist didn’t examine Ryan until 17 hours later, and Ryan never got medication for drug withdrawal or mental health issues before he was found dead.

In contrast, Armor’s attorney said Ryan repeatedly denied any problems with “anything indicative of suicide,” showed no drug withdrawal symptoms and no forms were generated before Ryan’s death that showed any suicidal tendencies.

However, Warywoda tried to demonstrate that an unknown jail official changed a form in Ryan’s file before his death — not after — to indicate a prior suicide attempt.

Ryan’s brother Thomas, 42, of North Bellmore, said later Thursday it was an emotional experience for his family to be in court.

“Hopefully justice will be served,” he said.

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