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Missouri Jail Not Liable for Injuries From Fire

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the grant of summary judgment to jail officials in a civil rights action alleging the defendants failed to ensure a pretrial detainee’s safety after a fire broke out at the Oregon County Jail (OCJ) in Missouri.

The suit was brought by pretrial detainee Cody Davis for events occurring on September 6, 2007. OCJ consists of two cells; it is located in the Oregon County courthouse. At the time of the fire, four detainees, including Davis, were held in the south cell of OCJ and two more detainees were in the north cell.

Davis and the other detainees were removed by the sheriff and firefighters without incurring injury. How the fire started was in dispute. Davis argued there was no evidence as to the cause of the fire. The district court accepted the defendant’s position that it was set by detainees, “intentionally igniting paper, Styrofoam cups, and a mattress in the corner near the south room of the south cell.”

In support of his claim, Davis argued the defendants were aware of a substantial risk to his safety and disregarded that risk by (1) guard disregard of the jail’s non-smoking policy, (2) inadequate fire safety equipment and (3) lack of emergency training provided to guards.

“That the OCJ had an anti-smoking policy and it conducted a contraband search shows jail officials were aware of the danger and they could not be said to have failed to reasonably respond to a substantial risk to Davis’ safety,” wrote the Eighth Circuit. Although the OCJ’s sprinklers were inoperable and painted over, the search for contraband, as well as the fire extinguishers and smoke alarms, show there was not deliberate indifference. Finally, that the guards could have undergone more “exhaustive emergency training” does not constitute deliberate indifference.

As such, the district court’s order was affirmed. See: Davis v. Oregon County, Missouri, 607 F.3d 543 (8th Cir. 2010); Case No. 09-2700.

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Related legal case

Davis v. Oregon County, Missouri