NJ city to pay millions after woman takes her own life
🔴 Ventnor City has settled lawsuits filed by the family of a woman who died by suicide
🔴The city and her boyfriend, a police officer, were accused of negligence
🔴 The lawsuits argued that the officer failed to follow policies and training
VENTNOR CITY — This Jersey Shore municipality has settled two lawsuits brought by the parents and a child of a 41-year-old woman who took her own life in 2017.
Kelly Ann McDowell, who had been struggling with clinical depression and the crushing stresses of a growing family, life changes and new job responsibilities, killed herself using her police officer boyfriend’s loaded service weapon.
The lawsuits said the police officer left his pistol unsecured in the home full of children and an emotionally troubled woman despite extensive training in both firearms safety and in recognizing at-risk people.
The lawsuits were filed in Superior Court in 2018 and settled in June and July, according to open-government activist John Paff, who reported details of the settlement on his website.
Since the suicide, Frank O’Neill has been promoted from sergeant to commanding lieutenant, Paff reported.
In settling the lawsuits, O’Neill and the municipality continue to deny wrongdoing.
Discovered by her son after gunshot
McDowell’s gravely wounded body was disovered by her 18-year-old son after he heard the gunshot, the lawsuits say.
McDowell and O'Neill had been sharing a home for about six months along with his two children and her three children. It was after the families came together that McDowell started having serious trouble, the litigation said.
A month before the suicide, McDowell’s mother had taken her to be admitted to a hospital. Sometime before that, she had been diagnosed with severe depression and was prescribed medication.
Hospital records from when she was admitted noted that she regretted moving in with O'Neill and was struggle with work-life balance. She was a receptionist for a real estate firm who recently took on more responsibilities. Meanwhile at home, she was caring for her children ages 7, 12 and 18 and her boyfriend’s 17 and 13-year-olds.
Her struggles were visible, the lawsuits say, having lost 14 pounds despite having given up the will to exercise or sometimes even get out of bed.
Police officers never off-duty
The lawsuits said there should have been no doubt to O’Neill that his girlfriend needed help. Moreover, O’Neill, unlike the general public, had received years of training to identify people with mental illness, training that cautioned that weapons should not be readily available.
The lawsuits also pointed to training and policies issued by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and his police department that warned against leaving firearms unsecured in the home.
The lawsuits pointed out that the department’s code of ethics underscores that officers are never “off duty.”
Despite that, the lawsuits said, O’Neill left his struggling wife while he took a trip to Florida, leaving behind an unsecured .45-caliber Glock pistol loaded with 13 bullets, including one in the chamber.
"Defendant O'Neill was negligent in leaving his service-issued firearm unsecured in the home that he was sharing with his girlfriend Kelly and their respective children,” her parents’ lawsuit said. “Defendant O'Neill knew for months before April 17, 2017 that Kelly was severely depressed and despite this knowledge he took no constructive and/or affirmative action for Kelly to get appropriate medical attention.
“Unlike the average layperson Defendant O'Neill had received extensive training as a requirement of his employment as a police officer in recognizing mental illness and dealing with it appropriately. Because of the extensive training that he received as a Ventnor City Police Officer Defendant O'Neill had superior knowledge of the dangers associated with mental illness as compared to the average layperson," the lawsuit said.
“Considering the special relationship between Defendant O'Neill and Kelly, the link between firearms, mental health issues, and suicide ... it was foreseeable that so leaving a loaded handgun with Kelly in her poor mental state would lead to her death such that defendant's negligence was the proximate and actual cause of the death of Kelly.”
Payments for the settlements will be made by the Municipal Excess Liability Joint Insurance Fund through the year 2044.
Firearms in the home a risk for suicide
More than half of all suicides in the United States are by firearms.
"More than twice as many suicides by firearm occur in states with the fewest gun laws, relative to states with the most laws," according to an analysis published by the independent health policy research organization Kaiser Family Foundation.
"Researchers found that higher rates of gun ownership were associated with increased suicide by firearm deaths, but not with other types of suicide. Taking a look at suicide deaths starting from the date of a handgun purchase and comparing them to people who did not purchase handguns, another study found that people who purchased handguns were more likely to die from suicide by firearm than those who did not–with men 8 times more likely and women 35 times more likely compared to non-owners."