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Wisconsin Court Orders Dismissal of Jail Negligence Suit

On October 16, 2014, District IV of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed a lower court and granted summary judgment in favor of defendants in a case brought by the estate of a prisoner who overdosed while at the Monroe County Jail.

Adrianna Seroy was found dead in her cell during a routine morning cell inspection by guards. It was later determined that Seroy died from an overdose of drugs smuggled into the jail by her cellmate, Alexeandra Leuck, who was in the jail's work release program. (Due to overcrowding, work release prisoners were often housed with a non-work release prisoner.)

In their complaint, Seroy's relatives claimed the jail was negligent in several ways, including (1) failure to properly search Leuck upon her return from work release,

(2) failure to enforce jail rules which prohibited prisoners from sleeping with their heads covered, and (3) failure to conduct proper cell checks during the night that would have discovered Seroy's condition. The suit contended that each of these failures contributed to Seroy's death.

Seroy's relatives sued Leuck and Monroe County. The County moved for summary judgment, which was denied by the circuit court and the County appealed.

Under Wisconsin law, municipalities and public officials are generally immune from liability for the negligent performance of public employees, unless the conduct was malicious or non-discretionary. The plaintiffs claimed jail staff negligently allowed drugs to be smuggled into the jail, and failed to perform their duties as required by jail policies.

Concluding that none of the exemptions to the immunity doctrine applied, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court and dismissed the County from the case. In doing so the court found that jail personnel had discretion as to how and when to perform their duties, thus rendering their actions discretionary.

"There is room for some discretion in what a jail employee says and how the jail employee" performs his or her duties, the court said.

The court voiced concern that too rigidly enforcing the rules may engender increased hostility between staff and prisoners, adversely affecting safety.

"Balancing such concerns requires the exercise of discretion on a case by case basis, not particularized actions that must be taken in every situation."

The appellate court thus reversed the summary judgment order and remanded with directions to dismiss the County as a defendant. The suit is still pending against Leuck and an insurance company. See: Estate of Adrianna Seroy v. Leuck and Monroe County, Appeal No. 2013AP2772 (C.A. Wis. 10/16/2014).

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Related legal case

Estate of Adrianna Seroy v. Leuck and Monroe County