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Summary Judgment Denied on North Carolina Excessive Force Claims

A North Carolina federal court held that material factual disputes precluded summary judgment on a prisoner's excessive force claims.

Randolph Watterson and Stephen Somerset were cellmates in protective custody at North Carolina's Gaston County Jail. Watterson claims that on the evening of August 7, 2009, guards Michael Grosch and Stephen Wilkinson came to his cell, ordered Somerset to leave the cell, then maliciously and sadistically slammed him into the wall and floor of his cell, maced and beat him, because he was a “child molester.” He also claims that guards slammed him into the wall two times while taking him to the shower to wash off the pepper spray.

Guards tell a much different story. On August 7, 2009, Grosch and Wilkinson heard Watterson banging on his cell door and yelling racially-charged remarks at another prisoner walking in the common area outside his cell.

The guards called over the intercom for Watterson to stop yelling and banging. He refused and told Grosch “to do something” and “not to worry” because Watterson was “going to kick their butt,” according to Somerset. “Ya'll already know how I am,” said Watterson, declaring that “he could take on any guard and inmate in the building” and “would whip anybody's butt that comes in here thinking they could do something to me.”

Guards claim that when they went to Watterson's cell to try to calm him, he continued his racially-charged verbal tirade. Grosch ordered Watterson to sit on his bunk so they could talk to him. He initially complied, but then got up and continued ranting.

Grosch again ordered him to sit down and remain seated. He warned that Watterson would be pepper sprayed if he did not remain seated.

Watterson jumped up and lunged at the guards, swinging his fists. Wilkinson pepper sprayed him, hitting him in the side of the face. Watterson continued swinging on both guards and the three men ended up on the ground.

While on the ground Watterson attempted to kick and punch the guards, hitting Wilkinson several times in the chest. He also tried to spit on them. Wilkinson struck Watterson in the face with his hand.

Watterson eventually stopped resisting and the guards handcuffed and removed him from the cell. Guards were inside the cell less than two minutes but the incident occurred outside the view of video surveillance.

While escorting Watterson to the showers for pepper spray decontamination, he resisted again, pulling away, yelling and attempting to spit on the guards. Wilkinson shoved him against the wall face-first.

A nurse treated Watterson for bruising around his eye and ear and a scratch on his nose. He was then taken to the booking area, where a magistrate issued a warrant, charging him with assault on a government official related to the incident. A grand jury indicted Watterson on that charge on August 17, 2009 but it was dismissed when Watterson was convicted of his pre-existing felony charges.

Watterson brought federal suit, alleging that the guards used excessive force against him. Defendants moved for summary judgment, claiming that the force they used was necessary to control Watterson and protect themselves.

Watterson offered declarations made under penalty of perjury from several current and former prisoners. All of them were in Watterson's handwriting, however, and many of those prisoners later submitted subsequent declarations recanting the statements reported in the declarations Watterson prepared.

Noting that Watterson “vigorously disputes most, if not all, of Defendants' version of the events,” the Court found “that the admissible evidence presented on summary judgment raises a genuine issue of fact as to whether Defendants used excessive force against Plaintiff in violation of Plaintiff's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Defendants ultimately paid Watterson $24,900 to settle the suit in August 2012, according to Watterson. See: Watterson v. Wilkinson, USDC No. 3:09-cv-394-RJC (W.D. N.C. 2012).

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Related legal case

Watterson v. Wilkinson