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Prison Officials Not Liable for Injuries to Officer Incurred While Responding to Orchestrated Gang Fight

The California Court of Appeal held in 2007 that prison officials could not be held liable for injuries sustained by a corrections officer who was responding to a fight between rival gangs, even if the fight was orchestrated by those officials. The Court reasoned that the officials did not themselves injure the officer and, moreover, they did not restrain him from acting on his own behalf to defend himself.

In April 2002, Patrick O’Dea, then a correctional officer at Folsom State Prison, was injured when he responded to a fight between Northern and Southern Hispanic prison gangs, three months after a riot between the gangs had led to a lockdown. The fight occurred shortly after the two groups were released from lockdown and allowed to congregate on the yard at the same time.

O’Dea ran toward the fight and sprayed those prisoners who did not comply with his instructions to “get down.” When he ran out of pepper spray, he used his baton to gain compliance.

Later in the day, O’Dea felt pain and discomfort in his neck, arms, chest and back. He had neck surgery in July 2002 and was “medically retired” less than a year later.

O’Dea subsequently filed suit in state court and presented evidence that prison officials had orchestrated the fight between the gangs, in part because one of them, Associate Warden Michael Bunnell, was “beholden” to the Southerners. O’Dea claimed, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, that prison officials had deprived him of his liberty interests under the Due Process Clause.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant prison officials. The Court of Appeal affirmed, concluding that, even if prison officials “acted affirmatively to create a foreseeable danger in reckless disregard for [O’Dea’s] constitutional rights,” they did not restrain O’Dea’s ability to act on his own behalf, “the gravamen of a substantive due process claim based on the deprivation of… liberty interests.”

The Due Process Clause, the Court noted, does not require the state to guarantee life, liberty, or property against invasion by private actors. Quoting Judge Easterbrook, it explained why its holding “did not run afoul of the rule ‘that the state must protect prisoners and others in its charge.’” (Walker v. Rowe (7th Cir. 1986) 7941 F.2d 507, 511). “’[T]he state did not draft its guards; they enlisted, on terms they found satisfactory, and they were free to quit whenever they pleased. The state must protect those it throws in snake pits, but the state need not guarantee that volunteer snake charmers will not be bitten. It may not throw Daniel into the lion’s den, but if Daniel chooses to be a lion tamer in the state’s circus, the state need not separate Daniel from his charges with an impenetrable shield.’”

O’Dea, the Court noted, was equipped with pepper spray and a baton. He could, and did, defend himself. By implication, he could also have quit. See: O’Dea v. Bunnell, 2007 Cal. LEXIS 8536.

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Related legal case

O’Dea v. Bunnell