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Seventh Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Terre Haute Prisoner’s FTCA Suit

Federal prisoner Charles D. Keller filed a lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) against prison officials at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, seeking damages after he was assaulted by another prisoner. Despite his history of mental illness that affected his ability to function and defend himself, Keller was placed in the prison’s general population where he was attacked. The brutal beating lasted several minutes and left him unconscious.

Keller filed suit, alleging negligence on the part of prison guards for “violat[ing]mandatory regulations and orders governing their conduct, thus allowing the attack to occur and continue.” He also claimed that prison psychologist Joseph Bleier “did not examine all of his available medical documents before deciding to release him into the general prison population, as required by applicable regulations.”

According to the Seventh Circuit, citing 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1) and 28 U.S.C. § 2674, “prisoners can sue under the FTCA to recover damages from the United States Government for personal injuries sustained during confinement in a federal prison, by reason of the negligence of a government employee.” [See: PLN, March 2014, p.44].

The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, finding that the “discretionary function exception” shields the federal government from liability for violence by other prisoners, based upon Calderon v. United States, 123 F.3d 947 (7th Cir. 1997). However, the Court of Appeals wrote that the guards’ negligent behavior in this case would not qualify for the discretionary function exception. The Court rejected the government’s argument that the exception applied, based on the lack of “evidence in the record to contradict Keller’s claims that the guards were simply lazy or inattentive.”

The Seventh Circuit held that such “carelessness would not be covered by the discretionary function exception, as it involves no element of choice or judgment grounded in public policy considerations,” and concluded “that the government did not sustain its burden to prove as a matter of law that the discretionary function exception shielded it from liability for the brutal attack that seriously injured Keller.” Accordingly, the district court’s grant of summary judgment was reversed. See: Keller v. United States, 771 F.3d 1021 (7th Cir. 2014).

The case remains pending on remand, with a trial date scheduled in October 2016. 

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Related legal cases

Keller v. United States

Calderon v. United States