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Former Prisoner Left Blind by Assault Obtains Reversal of FTCA Claim

Former Prisoner Left Blind by Assault Obtains Reversal of FTCA Claim

by David Reutter

On August 11, 2014, the Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of a former prisoner’s Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) complaint alleging negligence by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The reversal required the Illinois federal district court overseeing the case to consider the plaintiff’s equitable tolling argument.

While imprisoned at the Federal Correctional Institution at Greenville, Gerald Hill was attacked by another prisoner armed with a metal object. The attack caused Hill to lose one eye and seriously impaired the vision of the other, leaving him “blind or nearly so.”

Hill filed a negligence claim, alleging that BOP officials had allowed the facility to become overcrowded and failed to protect prisoners from violence. Once released from prison, he filed a notice of address change to a halfway house. Unfortunately he was evicted from the halfway house and his suit was dismissed without prejudice for failing to notify the court of his new address.

A motion to set aside the dismissal, filed by counsel retained by Hill, was denied. Six months later Hill’s attorney filed a second lawsuit. The district court dismissed that suit, which was materially identical to the first, stating the six-month statute of limitations for the administrative claim had run pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2401(b) and Hill had failed to exercise “due diligence,” which precluded equitable tolling. Hill appealed the dismissal of his second case.

The Seventh Circuit found the district court’s refusal to allow the late filing of the second lawsuit was “cursory.” There was no suggestion that the BOP was prejudiced, and the appellate court took a sympathetic view of Hill’s condition.

“Upon being released from prison the plaintiff was likely to have found it more rather than, as the district judge said, less difficult to advise the court of changes of address,” the Court of Appeals wrote, pointing out that while incarcerated Hill could ask another prisoner or prison staff member to mail a letter for him. Following his release, “he was a blind ex-con struggling to keep his head above water, and the struggle must have intensified when he was expelled ... from the halfway house that was his first home after he completed his prison sentence.”

The “inexplicable delay in the filing of the second suit,” however, was problematic. The deficiencies of an attorney are ordinarily imputed to his or her client. Regardless, the Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of Hill’s second case due to “the unusual gravity of the plaintiff’s injuries, the absence of any suggestion of prejudice to the defendant from the delay in suing, and the district judge’s cursory treatment of the issue of equitable tolling.”

The Court of Appeals noted that it did not “prejudge the issue” of equitable tolling, but only ordered the district court to give it fuller consideration. Further, the defense of res judicata was waived, as the district court had dismissed Hill’s first suit without prejudice and that dismissal had been accepted by the defendants. The case remains pending on remand. See: Hill v. United States, 762 F.3d 589 (7th Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Hill v. United States