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Third Circuit Upholds $100,000 Damages Award to Assaulted Pennsylvania Prisoner

Third Circuit Upholds $100,000 Damages Award
to Assaulted Pennsylvania Prisoner

The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the jury verdict and damages award in a Pennsylvania case involving the assault of a state prisoner by guards. [PLN, Sept. `99.]

Gerald Henderson was a prisoner of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) at SCI-Rockview. On March 29, 1995, during a count time, Henderson had a scheduled telephone call. The telephones were located in an open area at the base of the cell tiers. All other prisoners were in their cells. While on the phone, Henderson was struck on the head by a three-pound piece of concrete concealed in a potato chip bag. He dropped the phone, fell to the floor, and began to pass out. Before losing consciousness, Henderson saw SCI-Rockview guards David Fortson and Paul Sherry looking down at him from one of the tiers.

Henderson sued twelve prison officials under 42 U.S.C. §1983, including Fortson and Sherry. Ultimately, all defendants and claims were dismissed by the trial judge except the excessive force claim against Fortson and Sherry.

Henderson represented himself at trial. Testimony established that Fortson and Sherry dropped the concrete on Henderson. On cross examination, Henderson questioned Fortson about PADOC's installation of a safety gate over the telephones after the assault. Defense counsel repeatedly objected to the questions as irrelevant and was repeatedly overruled by the trial judge. A jury found for Henderson, awarding him $50,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages.

On appeal, the defendants assigned as error the safety cage questions, citing Fed.R.Evid. 407 (subsequent remedial measures), Fed.R.Evid. 401 ("relevancy" defined), and, impliedly, Fed.R.Evid. 403 (prejudice). They argued that the trial judge abused her discretion in admitting the questions.

The appeals court discussed when subsequent remedial measures may be admitted. Because evidence about PADOC's subsequent installation of a telephone safety cage could not establish the identity of the assailants and did not violate the rule's proscriptions, it was admissible under Fed.R.Evid. 407.

The court also found the evidence relevant. Defendants argued that prisoners regularly threw objects from the tiers. The safety cage was not installed, however, until Fortson and Sherry assaulted Henderson, rebutting that defense.

The court held that the argument that the evidence was prejudicial under Fed.R.Evid. 403 was not preserved for appeal. Furthermore, the evidence was not prejudicial, because the case turned on the assailants' identity, not on the assault itself, nor on negligence for failing to install a cage sooner.

The district court's judgment was affirmed. This case is unpublished. See: Henderson v. Mazurkiewicz, et. al., Case No. 00-2553 (3rd Cir. 2001).

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Related legal case

Henderson v. Mazurkiewicz

276 F.3d 577 (Table)

(The decision of the Court is referenced in a "Table of Decisions Without Reported Opinions" appearing in the Federal Reporter. The Third Circuit provides by rule for the reporting of opinions having "precedential or institutional value. An opinion which appears to have value only to the trial court or the parties is ordinarily not published." The Federal Reporter tables are prepared from lists of cases terminated by judgment orders, unpublished per curiam opinions and unpublished signed opinions, indicating the disposition of each case, transmitted by the Court. Third Circuit Rules, App. 1, Internal Operating Procedures, Ch. 5, sec. 5.1, 28 U.S.C.A.)

United States Court of Appeals,
Third Circuit.

Gerald Henderson
Joseph F. Mazurkiewicz, R.W. Meyers, Terry Whitman, Larry Lidgett, Michael
Streely, Jeanne Unknown, Forturne, Correctional Officer, Sherry, Sgt.,
Correctional Officer, Harry F. Bower, Daniel J. Wall, Tressler, Captain, Sam

NO. 00-2553

October 30, 2001

Appeal From: M.D.Pa., Kane, J., No. 97-cv-00250


276 F.3d 577 (Table)