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No Immunity for Abandonment of Disabled Prisoner

The Nevada Supreme Court, sitting En Banc, held that prison officials are liable for releasing disabled prisoners into conditions where they can’t be cared for.

Nevada prisoner George Butler threw rocks at other prisoners in an October 1997 quarrel over a drug debt that escalated into a racial brawl. While the prison was still on lockdown the next day, the guard left his post and a group of prisoners from the fight entered Butler’s cell and beat him severely. “Butler suffered permanent spinal chord injury and brain damage, rendering him a spastic quadriplegic. Although he can eat solid food, he must receive supplemental hydration via gastric intubation, i.e., ‘g-tube.’ He cannot speak or write and essentially functions at a ten-year-old level.”

Given Butler’s condition, in 1999, prison officials decided to release Butler to his former girlfriend, Sheila Woods. Prison officials told Woods she would need to equip her trailer with a wheelchair ramp, hospital bed and other medical equipment. She wasn’t sure she could make the changes, but agreed to “’try’ to provide housing and care for Butler.”

Prison officials left Butler at Woods’ residence on the day of his release, even though her “trailer had not been equipped with a wheelchair ramp or hospital bed,” “Woods had not made any other preparations to receive Butler into her home,” and officers doubted Woods could lift or move Butler on her own.

Two weeks later, Woods called 911, “concerned about Butler’s pale appearance and his inability to eat or drink. Butler was taken by ambulance to a local hospital where doctors found him to be seriously malnourished, dehydrated and suffering from electrolyte imbalance. Butler remained in the hospital for several months and was eventually released to a nursing home.”

Butler sued prison officials in federal court alleging constitutional and state law violations related to the 1997 assault, the denial of medical care, and abandonment upon release. Two years later the federal court granted Defendants summary judgment on the constitutional claims and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims.

Butler then filed suit in state court, but the court granted Defendants summary judgment. The trial court held that res judicata and qualified immunity barred Butler’s claims, and Defendants had no duty to provide him medical care once he was released.

The Nevada Supreme Court reversed, concluding “that the respondents may have breached their duty of ordinary care in effectuating Butler’s release.” Finding that “generally, the question of whether a defendant was negligent in a particular situation is a question of fact for the jury to resolve,” the court noted its reluctance to affirm summary judgment in negligence cases.” Before reaching the factual issues, however, the Court assessed the legal question of whether Defendants owed Butler a duty.

Butler conceded that the State was not required to provide him post-release medical care, but argued that prison officials “simply abandoned” him. “Case law detailing the scope of care prison officials must exercise in releasing a special-needs inmate is nonexistent.” Yet, at a minimum, Defendants “had a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid foreseeable harm to Butler in effectuating his post-release placement.”

Noting that “because the question of whether reasonable care was exercised almost always involves factual inquiries, it is a matter that must generally be decided by a jury,” the court concluded “that the manner in which (defendants) deposited Butler at Woods’ residence raises genuine issues of material fact as to whether they breached their duty to exercise reasonable carte in effectuating Butler’s release.” Moreover, “a jury could reasonably find that at least some of Butler’s injuries, specifically those caused in connection with his post-release decline, were a foreseeable result,” of Defendants’ actions.

The court also rejected Defendants’ claim that they were entitled to discretionary act immunity under N.R.S. 41.032(2) for any negligence in releasing Butler. Defendants’ “actions in physically releasing Butler, including the decision to leave Butler at Woods’ residence despite the obvious lack of preparation, are not protected by discretionary-act immunity.”

The court ruled for Defendants on Butler’s claims related to the failure to protect him from the 1997 beating because Butler did not ask for protection and prison officials had no reason to believe Butler was in danger. The court agreed that prison officials have a duty to protect prisoners from only foreseeable risks and Defendants “had no duty to shield Butler from an unforeseen intentional attack.” See: Butler Biller v. Bayer, Nev. SCt. No. 44749, 123 Nev., Adv. Op. 44 (10/11/07) (En Banc).

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Related legal case

Butler Biller v. Bayer