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Ninth Circuit Finds Accidental Amputation of Prisoner’s Fingertip Not a § 1983 Violation

The tip of pretrial detainee Cherie Harding’s little finger was accidentally severed in her cell’s door frame when a guard at a San Francisco jail opened the door to commence a pat-down search. Harding claimed that even though her finger was bleeding profusely, she was shackled for transport to the emergency room, which resulted in extreme pain. After her fingertip was successfully reattached she was returned to the jail, where she was told to either clean toilets using her good hand or be sent to “lockup.”

Neither the federal district court nor the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in an unpublished opinion, found that those circumstances constituted violations of Harding’s rights. The Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the City of San Francisco and jail officials.

According to the appellate court, Harding’s injury was “an unfortunate accident,” prompted by the placement of her own hand on the door frame, and “[a]ccidents alone are not constitutional violations.” The Court of Appeals added, “Though [she] contends that [the deputy] should have responded more expertly to [her] injury, this alone does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation ... deliberate indifference is found only when the defendant ‘knows and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety.’”

The Court also dismissed Harding’s tort claims for negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress and battery, finding it was her “own conduct that caused the injury, as [she] testified that she knew the door posed a danger, but nevertheless placed her finger in the frame.” While the guards’ actions may have been unsympathetic, such as shackling Harding when transporting her to the hospital and requiring her to clean toilets upon her return to the jail, they did not constitute violations of her rights.

The Ninth Circuit also dismissed Harding’s claims raised under California’s Bane Act, which requires an interference with constitutional rights and “threats, intimidation, or coercion.” See: Harding v. City and County of San Francisco, 602 Fed.Appx. 380 (9th Cir. 2015). 

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Related legal case

Harding v. City and County of San Francisco