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Fifth Circuit Reinstates Prisoner’s Environmental Tobacco Smoke Suit

by Matt Clarke

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed a district court’s order granting summary judgment to prison officials in a prisoner’s environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) lawsuit.

Getzell Johnson Murrell, Sr., a federal prisoner incarcerated in Beaumont, Texas, filed a pro se complaint against prison officials pursuant to Bivens v. Six Unknown Agents, 403 U.S. 388, 91 S.Ct. 1999 (1971). Murrell alleged that he suffered serious health problems after being exposed to excessive levels of ETS between 12 and 24 hours a day at his prison workplace and housing area. The ETS was allegedly so thick that he had to hold a wet towel over his face to breathe. Murrell also claimed he had advised the defendants that a smoking ban was not being enforced and that the ETS was causing him serious health problems.

The district court initially dismissed his lawsuit for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, and Murrell appealed. The Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings, finding that Murrell’s ETS complaint stated a claim. See: Murrell v. Chandler, 109 Fed.Appx. 700 (5th Cir. 2004) (unpublished). On remand, the district court granted summary judgment to the defendants and Murrell again appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that pursuant to Helling v. McKinney, 509 U.S. 25, 113 S.Ct. 2475 (1993), exposure to excessive ETS that seriously harms a prisoner’s health violates the Eighth Amendment and entitles the prisoner to relief if he can prove that prison officials were deliberately indifferent. The appellate court noted that Murrell’s sworn declaration included allegations of excessive exposure to ETS in his housing area and prison workplace; that the ETS was causing him serious health problems, including migraines and respiratory difficulty; and that he had advised the defendants that the prison’s smoking ban was not being enforced.

“This evidence creates genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Murrell objectively proved that he was exposed to unreasonably high levels of ETS and whether the defendants were subjectively deliberately indifferent to his plight,” the Court stated.
Murrell allegedly informed some of the supervisory defendants of the ETS and health issues verbally or through grievances. That created a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the supervisory defendants were personally involved in violating Murrell’s Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.

Therefore, the Fifth Circuit held the district court had erred in granting summary judgment to the defendants on Murrell’s ETS claim. The judgment was reversed and the case returned to the district court. See: Murrell v. Chandler, 277 Fed.Appx. 341 (5th Cir. 2008) (unpublished).

This suit is still pending before the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, following a stay in the proceedings after Murrell was transferred to a different federal prison. He has since moved to have the case reinstated on the active docket.

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Related legal cases

Murrell v. Chandler

Murrell v. Chandler