NJ Jail Hit With Civil Rights Suit Over Inmate's OD Death

By George Woolston | January 11, 2024, 6:40 PM EST ·

The mother of a 31-year-old New Jersey woman who died of a drug overdose while in custody at a Garden State county jail has sued the county and its sheriff's department, alleging it knew about her history of substance abuse but failed to place her in a protected setting and adequately monitor her or her cellmates.

Michelle Trussell, mother of Jennifer A. Ross, alleged in New Jersey federal court on Tuesday the "deliberate indifference" to the medical needs of drug-dependent detainees at the Monmouth County Correctional Institute caused Ross' fatal overdose.

Ross died of a drug overdose involving fentanyl on Sept. 20, 2022 — just three days after she had been arrested at Trussell's home on outstanding warrants for allegedly failing to appear in court on scheduled dates, according to the complaint.

Trussell alleges that Monmouth County, Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden and other sheriff's department officers and correctional officers who work at the county jail were aware detainees were exposed to and had access to widespread drug trafficking at the jail. Despite that knowledge, Trussell alleges, they did not do enough to stop the flow of drugs into the jail.

"Given her serious medical conditions, the facility's officials had a duty to shield her from the presence and danger of illicit drugs. The sorry history of the facility, however, is that detainees were routinely exposed to an open and notorious drug trade," Trussell said in the filing. "This abysmal failure was the result of lax detection and enforcement measures."

Trussell also says that despite knowing of Ross' substance abuse disorder — at the time of her arrest she was enrolled in the Monmouth County Drug Court Program to resolve drug-related charges and was prescribed detox medication by jail staff — she was placed with cellmates who had all been charged with drug possession.

Correctional officers at the jail also failed to properly monitor drug-dependent detainees such as Ross, Trussell alleges, and officers did not administer the right amount of Narcan — a drug used to reverse opiate overdoses — when responding to Ross' overdose.

Ross, a mother of two young children, had battled long-term drug dependency but was on the road to recovery before her September 2022 arrest, Trussell says in the complaint, and in addition to being enrolled in the county's drug court program, had also completed an inpatient rehabilitation program.

Trussell alleges 13 causes of action, including violation of Ross' federal and state constitutional rights, failure to protect, failure to adequately render medical aid, negligence and wrongful death. She is seeking compensatory, pain and suffering, punitive, and loss of enjoyment of life damages, counsel fees and injunctive relief to address the policy failures at Monmouth County Correctional Institute.

"I hope that this lawsuit will bring some relief to my two young grandchildren, Jennifer's sons, who are suffering the heartbreak of losing their mother. But I also hope that this lawsuit will bring about institutional change," Trussell said in a statement on Tuesday.

A spokesperson for the Monmouth County Sheriff's Office and counsel for Trussell declined to comment Thursday. A representative for Monmouth County did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Trussell is represented by Barry Albin, Natalie Kraner, Stephanie Ashley, Cassandra Essert and Pati Candelario of Lowenstein Sandler LLP.

Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.

The case is Trussell v. Monmouth County et al., case number 3:24-cv-00151, in U.S. District Court, District of New Jersey.

--Editing by Linda Voorhis. 

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