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Fifth Circuit Holds Prison Guard’s Injury-Causing Reckless Driving States Nonfrivolous Claim

Fifth Circuit Holds Prison Guard’s Injury-Causing Reckless Driving States Nonfrivolous Claim

by Matt Clarke

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held last year that a district court erred when it dismissed a prisoner’s claim that he was severely injured when a guard driving a transport van slammed on the brakes, throwing the prisoner into the van’s security cage.

Texas state prisoner Bruce A. Rogers was being transported from the Wayne Scott Unit to the Houston Veterans Hospital in June 2008 when Jose L. Garcia, Jr., the guard driving the van, slammed on the brakes. Rogers was seated on a bench perpendicular to the direction of travel. He was handcuffed and shackled with leg irons connected to the handcuffs by a chain, which prevented him from bracing himself. There were no seatbelts for prisoners.

According to Rogers, he hit the barrier of the van’s security cage head-first and suffered head, neck, spinal, vision and hand injuries, including a three-inch laceration to his scalp that bled profusely and was “gouged open to the bone.” Instead of checking on Rogers, the transport guards continued to the hospital.

The examining physician told them to take Rogers to the ER so his open, bleeding head wound could be treated. Instead, they returned Rogers to the Wayne Scott Unit and took him to the prison’s infirmary. This allegedly resulted in a 5-hour delay in treatment of his injuries and a delay of over a year before the full extent of his injuries was discovered after an MRI was finally performed.

Rogers filed a pro se 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights action in federal court alleging Eighth Amendment violations for Garcia’s reckless driving and the delay in medical treatment. The district court dismissed his complaint as frivolous and for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2), without ordering service on the defendants. Rogers appealed.

Distinguishing this case from several previous cases in which it found that guards weren’t liable when prisoners were injured in transportation accidents, the Fifth Circuit held that Rogers stated a nonfrivolous claim with respect to Garcia’s reckless driving.

Rogers had alleged that Garcia was darting in and out of traffic at high speeds. He also claimed that when asked by another guard whether such injuries were common, Garcia replied “yes,” just the previous week there had been an incident in which six prisoners were injured because a guard had slammed on the brakes, saying “it happens all the time, isn’t a big deal.” The appellate court held this additional allegation of reckless driving differentiated the case and stated a claim for more than mere negligence, as it indicated Garcia was deliberately indifferent to Rogers’ safety. Therefore, that claim should not have been dismissed upon preliminary screening by the district court.

The dismissal of Rogers’ claim related to the delay in medical treatment was affirmed, however, because the guards had taken him to a doctor at the Veterans Hospital and he had not shown that they knew the delay would pose a serious risk of substantial harm. The district court’s dismissal of the non-driving transport guard and the guards’ supervisor as defendants also was upheld. Accordingly, the reckless driving-related claim against Garcia was reinstated and the case remanded for further proceedings. One appellate judge, dissenting, would have upheld the dismissal of all the claims. See: Rogers v. Boatright, 709 F.3d 403 (5th Cir. 2013).

Following remand, Rogers moved to voluntarily dismiss his suit in October 2013, stating he did “not feel that [he] could receive a fair and impartial hearing concerning the outcome of this civil action,” due to the district court’s initial dismissal of the case. The court granted his motion and dismissed the action without prejudice.


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Related legal case

Rogers v. Boatright