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Prison Stabbing Violates Eight Amendment

The Sixth Circuit has held that a prisoner's Eighth Amendment rights were
violated when he was stabbed to death while prison guards watched and did
not render assistance.

Prisoner Jerry Fails was working as a janitor at the Tennessee State
Penitentiary when he was fatally stabbed by drunken prisoner Bert Eggleston
while as many as four guards looked on. Jacqueline Walker, executrix of
Fails' estate, brought a §1983 action against Corrections Commissioner
Norris, Warden Dutton, three prison guards and Eggleston, alleging Eighth
and Fourteenth Amendment violations.

In September 1988 the case came before the U.S. District Court for the
Middle District of Tennessee. A jury awarded $175,000 in compensatory
damages and $39,500 in punitive damages, including $15,000 apiece from
Norris and Dutton for supervisory liability. However, the district court
granted a motion for a directed verdict and vacated the jury's award
against Norris and Dutton. The remaining defendants appealed and the
plaintiff cross-appealed.

The Sixth Circuit held that the "callous disregard for Fails' safety in
spite of obvious notice of imminent danger" constituted "deliberate
indifference." They affirmed the Eight Amendment violations and punitive
damages against all remaining defendants but affirmed the directed verdict
for Norris and Dutton. They also held that the damage awards were not
excessive. See: Walker v. Norris, 917 F.2d 1449 (6th Cir. 1990).

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Related legal case

Walker v. Norris

Walker v. Norris, 917 F.2d 1449 (6th Cir. 11/01/1990)


[2] Nos. 89-5831, 89-6107

[3] 917 F.2d 1449

[4] decided: November 1, 1990.


[6] On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. D.C. No. 87-00796; Higgins, D.J.

[7] Counsel for plaintiff-appellee cross-appellant: Ronald W. McNutt, Argued, Williams & Dinkins, Nashvilee, Tennessee. Keith W. Veigas, Jr., Veigas & Cox, Birmingham, Alabama.

[8] Counsel for defendants-appellants cross-appellees: Steven E. Winn, Assistant Attorney General, Charles W. Burson, Attorney General, Michael W. Catalano, Aruged, Deputy Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General of Tennessee, Nashville, Tennessee.

[9] Damon J. Keith and Ralph B. Guy, Jr., Circuit Judges, and Richard A. Enslen,*fn* District Judge, sitting by designation.

[10] Author: Guy

[11] GUY, JR., Circuit Judge

[12] In this action involving 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims for eighth and fourteenth amendment substantive due process violations as well as a state law negligence claim stemming from the stabbing death of prison inmate Jerry Fails, the defendants appeal from a judgment entered on a jury verdict in favor of plaintiff Jacqueline Walker, the administratrix of Fails' estate. The plaintiff cross-appeals from an adverse judgment on the section 1983 eighth amendment claim against defendants Steven Norris, Michael Dutton, and Jonathan House and the district court's order directing a verdict in favor of defendants Norris and Dutton on the section 1983 substantive due process claim. On review, we affirm the judgment imposing section 1983 liability upon defendants Donald Ritz and Donald Jordan for violating Fails' eighth amendment rights. With respect to the plaintiff's section 1983 substantive due process claim, we find that such a theory is not available to supplement the plaintiff's eighth amendment claim, and therefore reverse the finding of liability against defendants Ritz, Jordan, and House, and affirm the entry of a directed verdict for defendants Norris and Dutton. We also affirm the district court's entry of a directed verdict in favor of Norris and Dutton on the plaintiff's section 1983 supervisory liability theory. In light of the immunity provided to state officers and employees under Tennessee law, we vacate the judgment against the defendants on the plaintiff's state law negligence claim and remand that cause of action for further consideration. Finally, we affirm the compensatory and punitive damage awards rendered by jury verdict against defendants Ritz and Jordan.

[13] I.

[14] On August 17, 1986, Fails was working as an inmate janitor at the Tennessee State Penitentiary (the prison). While engaged in his task of cleaning the walkways in Unit IV of the prison, he exchanged words with inmate Bert Eggleston. Eggleston, then under the influence of an alcoholic beverage called "julep" that was made in the prison,*fn1 picked up a knife hidden in his cell and chased Fails to the metal grill door leading to the prison yard.*fn2 Defendant Jordan, a prison corrections officer, observed the chase that initially ended at the Unit IV door. When Fails reached the door to the yard, he discovered that it was locked. Defendant Ritz, a corrections officer charged with the responsibility of guarding the outside of the door, ignored Fails' pleas that he was being chased by a man with a knife intent on killing him.*fn3 Ritz was talking to several other inmates on the opposite side of the door and explained that he would not open the door to let Fails into the yard.

[15] Fails' arrival at the door prompted Eggleston to retreat to a nearby stairwell, but Eggleston attacked Fails once he realized that Fails could not get through the door to the yard. As the attack progressed, Jordan and corrections officer House simultaneously arrived on the scene to separate the inmates. Ritz then opened the Unit IV door, and corrections officer Randy Bruso grabbed Eggleston's left wrist. Jordan, however, pulled Bruso away from Eggleston, stating, "Wait a minute, he's got a shiv [knife]." Fails passed through the Unit IV door into the yard, but no one closed the door and Eggleston followed Fails. When Eggleston overtook Fails in the yard, Fails implored the guards to help him, asking, "You all going to allow him to kill me?" Soon thereafter, Eggleston stabbed Fails to death as the corrections officers who followed the two into the yard watched and other guards arrived from inside the prison compound. After Fails slumped to the ground, Corporal Cook told Eggleston, "You've done what you were trying to do, hand me the knife." Eggleston did so, and Fails was carried from the prison yard.

[16] Following Fails' death, Jacqueline Walker was appointed to serve as administratrix of his estate. She filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama setting forth section 1983 claims against Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Norris, prison warden Dutton, and corrections officers House, Ritz, and Jordan for deprivation of eighth amendment and fourteenth amendment substantive due process rights. The plaintiff further alleged a wrongful death claim under Tennessee law sounding in negligence against all five defendants.*fn4 After the action was transferred to the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, the district court conducted a jury trial in September and October of 1988. Before submitting the entire case to the jury, the district court denied a motion filed by defendants House, Ritz, and Jordan for a directed verdict on the federal claims, and reserved ruling on a motion for directed verdicts filed by Norris and Dutton with respect to all federal and state claims and by House, Ritz, and Jordan with respect to the state law claim.

[17] On October 21, 1988, the jury returned a verdict on all of the claims. The jury found against defendants Ritz and Jordan, but in favor of defendants Norris, Dutton, and House on the section 1983 eighth amendment claim. The jury further found all five defendants liable to the plaintiff on the section 1983 substantive due process claim, and imposed supervisory liability against defendants Norris and Dutton. The jury similarly returned a verdict for the plaintiff and against all five defendants on the state law negligence claim. Finally, the jury assessed a total of $175,000 in compensatory damages against the defendants, and imposed varying amounts of punitive damages against each of the defendants totalling $39,500.*fn5 The district court then granted the reserved motion of defendants Norris and Dutton for a directed verdict on the plaintiff's section 1983 substantive due process and supervisory liability claims,*fn6 but denied the reserved motions for directed verdicts in all other respects. The defendants unsuccessfully moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial, and then filed a timely notice of appeal. The plaintiff subsequently cross-appealed the adverse judgment on the eighth amendment claim against defendants Norris, Dutton, and House as well as the district court's order granting a directed verdict for defendants Norris and Dutton on the section 1983 substantive due process and supervisory liability claims. We shall address the issues raised with respect to the federal claims, the state negligence claim, and the damage awards seriatim.

[18] II.

[19] Section 1983 authorizes "any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof" to pursue "an action at law [or] a suit in equity" against "every person who, under color of" state law, causes "the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws[.]" See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Although "§ 1983 by itself does not protect anyone against anything[,]" Chapman v. Houston Welfare Rights Org.,441 U.S. 600, 617 , 60 L. Ed. 2d 508 , 99 S. Ct. 1905 (1979), the statute "provides a remedy for deprivations of rights secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States . . . ." Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co.,457 U.S. 922, 924 , 73 L. Ed. 2d 482 , 102 S. Ct. 2744 (1982). Here, the plaintiff has relied upon both the eighth and the fourteenth amendments to support section 1983 claims against the various defendants for both direct and supervisory liability.

[20] A. Eighth Amendment

[21] The eighth amendment, which prohibits infliction of "cruel and unusual punishment," encompasses the proscription of "deliberate indifference" to the serious needs of prisoners. See, e.g., Estelle v. Gamble,429 U.S. 97, 102-05 , 50 L. Ed. 2d 251 , 97 S. Ct. 285 (1976). On several occasions, we have held that "deliberate indifference" of constitutional magnitude may occur when prison guards fail to protect one inmate from an attack by another.*fn7 See, e.g., Roland v. Johnson, 856 F.2d 764, 769-70 (6th Cir. 1988); McGhee v. Foltz, 852 F.2d 876, 880-81 (6th Cir. 1988). Here, the jury found that defendants Ritz and Jordan violated Fails' eighth amendment rights by failing to prevent Eggleston from killing Fails. We agree.*fn8 Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, see Frost v. Hawkins County Bd. of Educ., 851 F.2d 822, 826 (6th Cir.) (articulating standard of review for denial of directed verdict and JNOV motions), cert. denied, 488 U.S. 981, 109 S. Ct. 529 , 102 L. Ed. 2d 561 (1980), the jury could have concluded that officers Ritz and Jordan had opportunities to prevent the stabbing death: (1) by opening the door to the yard to permit Fails to elude Eggleston; (2) by restraining Eggleston at the door; (3) by shutting the door before Eggleston could follow Fails into the yard; and (4) by intervening when Eggleston attacked Fails in the yard as the guards looked on. The officers' inaction, when viewed in the most favorable light from the plaintiff's perspective, amounted to a callous disregard for Fails' safety despite obvious notice of imminent danger. Such conduct constituted the type of "deliberate indifference" that we characterized in Roland as " 'obdurate' or 'wanton.' " See Roland,856 F.2d at 769. Accordingly, the judgment against defendants Ritz and Jordan for violating Fails' eighth amendment rights is AFFIRMED. *fn9

[22] With respect to defendants Norris, Dutton, and House, the jury returned a verdict against the plaintiff on the section 1983 eighth amendment claim. The plaintiff requests a new trial on this claim because of an alleged flaw in the jury instruction concerning deliberate indifference. We have explained that "[a] party is not entitled to a new trial based upon alleged deficiencies in the jury instructions unless the instructions, taken as a whole, are misleading or give an inadequate understanding of the law." Bowman v. Koch Transfer Co.,862 F.2d 1257, 1263 (6th Cir. 1988). Here, we find no such error. The district court furnished the jury with the following definition of deliberate indifference:

[23] A defendant acts with deliberate indifference if he causes unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain on the decedent by deliberately disregarding a serious threat to the decedent's safety after actually becoming aware of that threat. A mere inadvertent or negligent failure to adequately protect the decedent does not constitute deliberate indifference.

[24] The plaintiff offered an alternative instruction explicitly including reckless disregard within the definition of deliberate indifference, but the district court rejected this proposal. While we recognize that the concept of deliberate indifference cannot necessarily be reduced to a single definition universally applicable to all possible occurrences within a prison, we find that the district court properly chose not to expressly instruct the jury in terms of "reckless disregard." Our decision in McGhee makes clear that, in view of "recent pronouncements of the Supreme Court, even the reference . . . to 'gross negligence' is no longer valid." McGhee,852 F.2d at 881. The district court selected a definition of deliberate indifference that expressly (and appropriately) excluded such negligent conduct. Then, in instructing the jury on the plaintiff's substantive due process claim, the district court used the terms "reckless disregard" and "gross negligence" as interchangeable. Consequently, if the district court had included "reckless disregard" in the definition of deliberate indifference, the jury might well have erroneously concluded that gross negligence could support a section 1983 eighth amendment claim. Such a result clearly would have been inappropriate. Because the jury charge in this case correctly defined "deliberate indifference" by precluding the jury from finding an eighth amendment violation predicated upon gross negligence, we AFFIRM the judgment in favor of defendants Norris, Dutton, and House on the plaintiff's section 1983 eighth amendment claim.

[25] B. Fourteenth Amendment Substantive Due Process

[26] The fourteenth amendment forbids state actors to "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law[.]" See U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. We have recognized that this amendment has a substantive component that "protects specific fundamental rights of individual freedom and liberty from deprivation at the hands of arbitrary and capricious government action[,]" Gutzwiller v. Fenik,860 F.2d 1317, 1328 (6th Cir. 1988), but we have admitted that this notion is "ephemeral" and "somewhat vague." See id. The vague quality of substantive due process is evinced by the widely differing definitions of the appropriate standard for culpability ranging from "gross negligence," see, e.g., Nishiyama v. Dickson County, Tennessee,814 F.2d 277, 282 (6th Cir. 1987) ( en banc), to "conduct that shocks the conscience." See, e.g., Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 327 , 89 L. Ed. 2d 251 , 106 S. Ct. 1078 (1986). Here, the district court's instructions permitted the jury to impose liability upon a finding of "reckless disregard or gross negligence," thereby providing a substantially lower threshold than under the eighth amendment. Such disparity between the substantive due process and eighth amendment standards seems plainly incompatible with the Supreme Court's decision in Albers. Addressing a prisoner's section 1983 claims under both the eighth amendment's and the fourteenth amendment's substantive due process component, the Court utilized the standard of "conduct that shocks the conscience," rather than gross negligence, to analyze and ultimately reject the plaintiff's section 1983 substantive due process cause of action. Id. at 327. This approach indicates that gross negligence cannot support a section 1983 substantive due process claim in the prison context. Recent developments in the Supreme Court and this circuit, however, suggest a more fundamental flaw in the plaintiff's section 1983 substantive due process claim.