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Prisoner's Wrongful Death FTCA Claim Dismissed For Lack of Jurisdiction

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States District Court for the District of Maryland has dismissed a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) case brought against the United States over the 2013 wrongful death of a prisoner held at Federal Correctional Institution Cumberland, Maryland.

The case was brought by the widow and sons of Stephen P. Gardner. They claimed that the federal government was liable in tort for the sudden cardiac arrest that led to Gardner's death July 17, 2013. Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that Gardner's death was a direct and proximate result of the Bureau of Prisons failing to accommodate him with an appropriate job due to his serious cardiac history.

Gardner, who had coronary artery disease, hypertension, high cholesterol and arthritis was assigned a job as a janitor/groundskeeper. His job required him to work outside in extreme heat and humidity, and the plaintiffs placed the blame for his death entirely on the government's assignment of him to a strenuous, outside job.

This was a mistake. The court determined that the plaintiffs' theory "fit squarely within the exclusive remedy provided by the Inmate Accident Compensation Act (IACA). The IACA is essentially a watered-down version of a workers' compensation program for prisoners. And just like workers comp, the IACA precludes virtually any tort claim for an injury on the job.

Looking closely at the IACA, the court determined that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff's FTCA claim, because it was "barred as a cause of action."

"The regulations are clear that if an inmate's death is proximately caused by actual performance of a prison work assignment, then it is covered by the IACA," wrote the court. Because the IACA was the exclusive remedy, the plaintiff's FTCA claim was barred.

Even had the claim not been barred, however, the court ruled that it would have failed because the assignment of prison jobs is a "discretionary act," which is exempt from FTCA liability.

Case: Gardner v. United States, United States District Court for the District of Maryland, Case No. 1:15-cv-02874-JKB (August 16, 2017).

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Related legal case

Gardner v. United States