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Inmate Accident Compensation Act Does Not Preclude Bivens Remedy

The Inmate Accident Compensation Act (IACA), 18 U.S.C. § 4126, does not preclude a federal prisoner from bringing a claim under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971) for work-related injuries that amount to a constitutional violation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held.

The appellate court’s decision came in response to an appeal by Byron Smith, a federal prisoner who sued several Bureau of Prisons (BOP) staff members for Eighth Amendment violations after he was exposed to asbestos while working at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. 
Smith, an electrician, was instructed to install a light fixture in a closet in the prison’s education department. During the installation process another prisoner who had been ordered to clean the closet began pulling insulation off some pipes, causing dust to fill the air. The dust, Smith later discovered, was laden with asbestos.

Smith alleged that the warden and other staff at Leavenworth were deliberately indifferent to his health and well-being because they were aware that the closet contained asbestos.
Smith pointed to a 1994 survey by an outside contractor that documented the presence of asbestos in the education building. According to his complaint, Smith said he now suffers from a cough, shortness of breath, and trouble with his throat and eyes as a result of the exposure.

Instead of reaching the merits of Smith’s allegations, the district court dismissed his Bivens claims, finding the IACA to be Smith’s exclusive remedy. The IACA permits federal prisoners to recover monetary damages for work-related injuries in several ways. First, they can request compensation for residual injuries still remaining within forty-five days of their release. If the prisoner has fully recovered from his or her injuries, though, no compensation may be awarded. Second, a prisoner can receive compensation for lost prison wages while recovering from the injury.

Smith appealed and the Tenth Circuit reversed on March 31, 2009. “The [IACA] does not preclude us from recognizing Smith’s Bivens claim,” the appellate court wrote. “The [IACA] does not explicitly foreclose the Bivens remedy, there is very little deterrent effect for constitutional harms within the [IACA], and there is no alternative forum where the alleged constitutional violation could be addressed.” Consequently, the Court of Appeals concluded, “a Bivens action for constitutional harm arising from work-related asbestos exposure is not foreclosed by the compensatory remedy available under the [IACA].” 
The Tenth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Smith’s FTCA claims and his Bivens claim against the United States, federal officials in their official capacities, and federal agencies. The case was remanded to the district court for further proceedings against the individual defendants. See: Smith v. United States, 561 F.3d 1090 (10th Cir. 2009), cert. denied.

Following remand, the district court granted Smith’s motion to appoint counsel on December 30, 2009. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss or alternatively for summary judgment in February 2010. On April 8, 2010, the court granted Smith’s request to defer the motion, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(f), to allow time to conduct discovery. This case remains pending. See: Smith v. United States, U.S.D.C. (D. Kan.), Case No. 5:06-cv-03061-JTM-KGG.

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Related legal cases

Smith v. United States

Smith v. United States