Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

California Recognizes “Special Relationship” Between Jailer and Prisoner

By Michael Brodheim

A California Court of Appeal has held that there is a "special relationship" between jailer and prisoner, which gives rise to a duty of care to protect the prisoner from foreseeable harm and thus can support a state-law negligence claim. In so holding, California joins a virtually unanimous list of jurisdictions to have recognized such a special relationship.

Alexis Giraldo, a male-to-female transgender prisoner, sued various prison officials under state law, claiming that they had failed to take any action to protect her despite being repeatedly told about horrific sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of her cellmates while housed at Folsom State Prison. Giraldo alleged three causes of action: for negligence; for intentional infliction of emotional distress; and for violation of the state constitutional ban against cruel or unusual punishment. She sought damages as well as an injunction and declaratory relief with respect to the housing of transgender prisoners.

On pretrial motion by defendants, the trial court dismissed the negligence claim, holding that the complaint failed to allege a cognizable duty on the part of any defendant. After the parties submitted evidence to the jury, the trial court dismissed the cruel-or-unusual-punishment state constitutional claim, finding that case law did not authorize damages for any such alleged violation. As to the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, the jury returned a verdict in favor of six of seven defendants, and deadlocked as to the remaining defendant. The trial court dismissed as moot Giraldo's request for injunctive and declaratory relief because, despite expedited calendaring, Giraldo paroled three days before the trial began.

On appeal, the principal issues were whether the trial court had appropriately dismissed the negligence claim and whether a private cause of action for damages can arise out of an alleged violation of the cruel or unusual punishment clause of the California Constitution.
As to the negligence claim, the appellate court began by noting that the right to recover from a defendant's negligent acts or omissions is predicated on the existence of a legal duty owed by the defendant to the person injured. Such a duty exists, generally speaking, with respect to a defendant's own foreseeably dangerous conduct, but not -- with one important exception -- with respect to the conduct of third parties. The exception comes into play when some "special relationship" exists between a defendant and, as relevant here, a potential victim. When such a relationship exists, then the defendant has an affirmative duty to protect the potential victim from the conduct of would-be third-party attackers.

After canvassing numerous authorities and observing that prisoners are both vulnerable and dependent on their keepers, the appellate court had no trouble determining that there is in fact a "special" relationship between jailer and prisoner which imposes a duty on prison officials to protect prisoners from foreseeable harm (including sexual abuse) by other prisoners. Partly because breach of this duty can give rise to a claim for negligence, as well as (possibly) a federal claim for violation of the Eighth Amendment, the appellate court found no need to recognize a separate, private cause of action for damages for alleged violation of the state constitutional ban against cruel or unusual punishment. The Court remanded the case for reconsideration of Giraldo's negligence claim. See Giraldo v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 168 Cal.App.4th 231 (2008).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Giraldo v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation