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Utah Prison Van Accident States “Unnecessary Rigor” Claim

By Mark Wilson

The Utah Supreme Court found that a prisoner sufficiently alleged an “unnecessary rigor” claim under the State Constitution for injuries sustained in a transport van accident. Yet, the Court suggested that dismissal may be proper for other reasons.

In December 2000, Kelvin Dexter was a prisoner at the Utah State Prison (USP) who was being transferred to another facility. USP guards Jason Bosko and Barry Sanns loaded Dexter and eight other prisoners into a 15-passenger transport van. The prisoners were handcuffed and shackled, preventing them from fastening their seatbelts. Several prisoners asked Bosko and Sanns to fasten theirs, but the guards refused.

Bosko fastened his own seatbelt and began driving. During the trip, “Bosko momentarily diverted his attention from the road, the van drifted, Bosko overcorrected, and the van went into the median…. The van rolled three times, and Dexter was thrown from the vehicle.” He “was paralyzed as a result of injuries sustained in the accident and died five years later due to complications from those injuries.”

Before his death, in December 2004, Dexter sued in state court alleging that the “failure to place him in a seatbelt violated his right under article I, section 9 of the Utah Constitution” not to “be treated with unnecessary rigor.” The trial court denied Defendants’ motion to dismiss, holding that Dexter’s complaint stated a sufficient unnecessary rigor claim. Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal.

The “central question” for the Utah Supreme Court was “the scope of the unnecessary rigor clause … and how, if at all, the clause applies here.” The Court noted that the provision has no federal counterpart and only four states – Indiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Wyoming – have similar provisions.

The Court rejected Defendants’ argument that the Clause should be narrowly construed, “as a proscription only against the physically cruel and barbarous treatment of prisoners that characterized the American colonial era.” Rather, the court concluded that “a prisoner suffers from unnecessary rigor when subject to unreasonably harsh, strict or severe treatment. This may include being unnecessary exposed to an increased risk of serious harm.”

The Court affirmed the lower court’s order, but noted that “the allegations of the complaint in the record do not address the necessity, if any, of the acts involved, nor do they include any assessment of the risk inherent to the act.” Therefore, “the allegations may be sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, but may not withstand further evidentiary challenge,” the Court suggested. It also offered “guidance on the requirement that the conduct at issue be more than negligent to be actionable.”

The Court found that “Defendants make a reasonable point” that their conduct was not a flagrant violation because since Utah law does not establish “the contours of the unnecessary rigor clause, the right to have the seatbelt buckled was not then a clearly established right.” The Court was not able to decide that issue on record before it.

“If an official knowingly and unjustifiably subjects an inmate to circumstances
previously identified as being unnecessarily rigorous, that is obviously a flagrant violation,” the Court held. It found that two elements establish a flagrant violation of the unnecessary rigor clause: “First, the nature of the act presents an obvious and known serious risk of harm to the arrested or imprisoned person; and second, knowing of that risk, the official acts without other reasonable justification.”

The Court remanded, instructing that “the finder of fact must first determine whether the risk of harm was serious, and whether that risk was obvious and known to the defendants. If so, the finder of fact must then address what, if any, justification existed for the act, as well as the reasonableness of that justification.”

See: Dexter v. Bosko, 184 P.3d 592, 602 Utah Adv. Rep. 3, 2008 UT 29.

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Related legal case

Dexter v. Bosko