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No Qualified Immunity for Michigan Prison Warden in Guard's Murder

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, held that Tripett, the warden of the Thumb Correctional Facility in Michigan (TCF), was not entitled to qualified immunity, in a suit brought by the estate of a kitchen worker killed by a prisoner.

Taylor, was a food service worker at TCF, she advised her superiors that she did not want a prisoner named Barnes who was convicted of a sexual assault with a knife, to come near her because of his history of knife related assaults. Despite Taylor's request, Barnes was given access to knives in the kitchen while Taylor was there, and he followed her into a hallway, where he stabbed and killed her.

Erick Waller the son of the late Doris Taylor, filed a suit against Tripett, for failure to protect Taylor from the risks of working in the prison, and because the warden's policies created a particular danger to Taylor and violated her substantive due process rights. Waller's complaint pointed out that prisoners had access to knives that were untethered which was contrary to statewide policy. Tripett, filed a motion to dismiss the case stating that the law did not support any cause of action against him and that he was shielded from liability on the basis of qualified immunity. He also argued that Waller failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

The court held that many of Waller's allegations failed to identify conduct that is conscience-shocking, in the constitutional sense, and granted the warden's motion in part and denied it in part. The court also held that a reasonable person such as the warden, should have been aware that the prisoner in this case, who had a history of violence with knives, had access to untethered knives and that it could be a danger to employees. For that reason, the doctrine of qualified immunity would not apply to the warden in this case. Finally, the court held that some of the warden's policies created particular dangers to Taylor in violation of her substantive due process rights. However, the warden owed no duty to protect her from the general risks associated with working at the prison. The motion to dismiss was granted in part and denied in part. See: Waller v. Tripett, 179 F.Supp.2d 724 (WD MI 2001).

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