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Prisoner Assaulted in Tennessee Jail Settles Suit for $530,000

Curtis Dressman, a former pre-trial detainee, has settled his § 1983 lawsuit against jail officials in Nashville, Tennessee after a judge denied the jail’s motions for summary judgment. The district court found that Dressman had “a clearly established constitutional right to be [free] from deliberate indifference of inmate-on-inmate violence.”

The court’s November 27, 2012 order cited a culture of “deliberate indifference” by various jail officials with respect to prisoner safety at the Davidson County Criminal Justice Center. This, the court said, fostered a “fight club” atmosphere in the facility’s booking and intake areas when non-violent pre-trial detainees were placed in the same cell as violent prisoners despite the availability of other, vacant holding cells.

The district court brushed aside assertions by jail officials that the April 2010 assault on Dressman by another intoxicated prisoner was an isolated incident, noting Dressman’s assertion in his complaint that “offender/offender assaults” occurred “almost one per day.” Dressman claimed that he suffered a “traumatic brain injury, dental and facial fractures, cuts, and permanent physical injuries and disfigurement, as a result of the attack.”

The court found that the jail was “on notice at the time of the assault that [it] had an obligation to protect detainees from this violence.” The district court noted, “In a recent case of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse at a Michigan jail where inmates were held in a 12-person unit, the Sixth Circuit made clear that “the constitutional right to be free from deliberate indifference to assault ... was clearly established.” See: Bishop v. Hackel, 636 F.3d 757 (6th Cir. 2011) [PLN, April 2012, p.45].

The district court further wrote that “On several occasions, we have held that ‘deliberate indifference’ of constitutional magnitude may occur when prison guards fail to protect one inmate from an attack by another...,” citing Walker v. Norris, 917 F.2d 1449 (6th Cir. 1990).

In denying the jail’s motions for summary judgment, the court held that Dressman had adequately argued that there were empty holding cells available at the time of the assault, despite jail officials’ assertions to the contrary. The court also said the jail’s own records revealed a high level of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults during the previous year, including “thirty-four reported incidents of such assaults in the intake ... area in the four years before the incident at issue here,” which was sufficient to substantiate Dressman’s claims for the purposes of the summary judgment motions.

Following the district court’s order, the case settled for $530,000, inclusive of attorney’s fees and costs, in July 2013. Dressman was represented by Nashville attorney Edmund J. Schmidt III. See: Dressman v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:11-cv-00336; 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167640.

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