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$250,000 Settlement Paid to Seattle Jail Guard Assaulted by Released Prisoner

$250,000 Settlement Paid to Seattle Jail Guard
Assaulted by Released Prisoner

On July 30, 2002, King County Jail
guard Heather Van Vleck, who was assaulted and injured on the job by a violent prisoner just released from state custody, settled her damages claim against Washington State based upon a "duty to control" liability theory, for $250,000.

Washington Correctional Center (Shelton) prisoner Richard Harrison was released on March 18, 1998. At 9:30 PM that same day, after obtaining and using illegal drugs within hours of his release, he proceeded to the King County Correctional Facility in Seattle. He entered the jail lobby there, punched an unidentified civilian and ran past the metal detector to a waiting area in the jail. Lobby desk guard Van Vleck, who had asked Harrison to leave, took chase. Assisted by another guard, they finally subdued Harrison after pepper spray did not stop his assault. Van Vleck was injured in the fracas. She then sued the Washington Department of Corrections.

Van Vleck's damage claim against Washington DOC and the State centered on liability theories of negligent release of a known dangerous prisoner without transitional services and upon negligent supervision of Harrison - who was technically still under the control of WA DOC after his release.

Harrison had a history between 1991 and 1995 of assaultive behavior in prison, including sexual harassment and assault on staff, throwing objects, destruction of property and arson. Reincarcerated in 1997 for first degree theft (with prior Washington and California burglary and robbery convictions), he was again a management problem. He was placed in the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) on March 4, 1998 for threatening staff, where he remained until March 17. He was released from prison (Shelton) the next day, even though his expected release date was April 1. Van Vleck claimed that thus releasing Harrison straight from the IMU to the streets with no transition or monitoring was a cause of her injuries. She also claimed that defendants owed her a duty to control Harrison while he remained on community supervision.

Part of the liability claim stemmed from Harrison's early release before a pending disciplinary charge had been heard, which would have delayed his release by 15 days. The disciplinary clerk's failure to notify the prison Captain of this pending action was alleged to be a contributing negligent act resulting in Van Vieck's injury. Further, it was alleged that defendants were negligent in failing to give Harrison any substance abuse treatment, an end-of-sentence review or any pre-release planning.

Although the state raised a defense of "Fireman's Rule" [choosing to work in a dangerous profession] and that Harrison had reached his maximum release date on March 18, they entered into a settlement for $250,000 on July 26, 2002, after Van Vleck had demanded $23,868 in medical costs, $56,996 in past lost wages and $632,000 in future lost wages. She was psychologically unable to continue her employment as a guard and became a district court clerk instead.

Van Vleck was represented by Seattle attorneys Michael Watkins and Fred Diamondstone. See: Van Vleck v. State of Washington, King County Superior Court No. 01-2-11407-7 SEA. g

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Related legal case

Van Vleck v. State of Washington