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Qualified Immunity Denied to Guard Who Failed to Provide Safe Transport

by David M. Reutter

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held on March 4, 2008 that a guard was not entitled to qualified immunity concerning a prisoner’s claim that the guard failed to provide safe transport, violating the prisoner’s Eighth Amendment rights.

The civil rights action was brought by Missouri prisoner Randell Brown, who was transported with other prisoners to another facility in a five-vehicle convoy. Guard Keith Fortner was driving a van that held Brown and nine other prisoners. Each of the prisoners was fully shackled with belly chains, handcuffs, leg chains and a black box covering the handcuffs. Those restraints prevented them from securing their seatbelts without assistance and would also prevent them from bracing themselves in the event of a crash.

As he was loaded into the van, Brown asked the guards to fasten his seat belt. They refused; instead, they replied with taunts. Guard Eugene Scott was driving a van that was following the van containing Brown, and he eventually crashed into Brown’s van during the transport.

The district court initially dismissed Brown’s complaint. That dismissal was reversed by the Eighth Circuit. See: Brown v. Missouri Department of Corrections, 353 F.3d 1038 (8th Cir.2004) [PLN, June 2004, p.27]. On remand, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion to all defendants except Scott and Fortner, who filed an interlocutory appeal on qualified immunity grounds.

Finding it had jurisdiction, the Eighth Circuit addressed the merits. On appeal, Fortner admitted that Brown had requested a seatbelt and Fortner did not secure it. The appellate court noted that those facts were not the sole basis for Brown’s claim. Brown also presented evidence of Fortner’s reckless driving in excess of the speed limit, following too closely to the lead van, crossing over double yellow lines and passing non-convoy cars when the road markings clearly prohibited him from doing so. The prisoners riding in Fortner’s van asked him to slow down, and he ignored their request.

The Court of Appeals held this evidence could allow a reasonable jury to conclude that there was a substantial risk of harm to Brown that Fortner knew of and disregarded. The Eighth Circuit further held that Fortner had “fair warning” in the law that driving recklessly while transporting a shackled prisoner who had been denied the use of a seatbelt while ignoring requests to slow down violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

As it concerned Scott, the appellate court said the critical difference was knowledge. While Scott was similarly driving recklessly and his inattentiveness caused the accident at issue, there was no evidence that “Scott actually knew Brown was not in a seatbelt, or that Scott knew Brown had requested and been denied a seatbelt.” Scott’s driving alone could not amount to deliberate indifference under the facts of the case.

Accordingly, the denial of qualified immunity was affirmed as to Fortner but reversed as to Scott. See: Brown v. Fortner, 518 F.3d 552 (8th Cir. 2008).

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Related legal case

Brown v. Fortner