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Seventh Circuit: Injured Federal Detainee Meets Negligence Standard in Fall from Stool

On June 23, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held a detainee in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service met the criteria for application of the res ipsa loquitur doctrine, and the record would permit a fact finder to infer negligence on the part of the government.

Cedric Smith was transported on January 18, 2013 from the Rock Island County Jail in Illinois to the U.S. District Court to be arraigned on a federal weapons charge. Following the arraignment, the U.S. Marshals took him to an interview room so he could meet with his attorney to discuss the case.

The interview room had a screen to separate defendants and their counsel. It was equipped with a swing-arm stool that could be moved in front of the screen or repositioned for wheelchair accessibility. According to Smith, when he sat on the stool it “broke” and tilted backwards, causing him to fall and strike his head on the floor. He was subsequently taken to a hospital and treated for a stroke; afterward, he said he continued to suffer weakness on the left side of his body, difficulty speaking, headaches and memory impairment.

Smith filed a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) suit after exhausting his administrative remedies. The district court granted summary judgment to the government, finding “[i]t is possible that others could have damaged the seat earlier that day or in the days prior. It is also possible that [Smith] could have, through inadvertence or otherwise, damaged the seat himself.”

To bring an action for negligence under the FTCA, state law controls. In Illinois, the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur requires the plaintiff to show he was injured 1) in circumstances that ordinarily would not occur absent negligence, and 2) by an agency or instrumentality within the defendant’s management control. The primary question “is whether the probable cause of the plaintiff’s injury was one which the defendant was under a duty to the plaintiff to anticipate or guard against.”

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit found Smith met that criteria. “A properly functioning stool of the type described should not wobble so as to tip its occupant onto the floor,” the appellate court wrote. “But, on Smith’s representation of the facts, wobble it did.” The incident “bespeaks a malfunctioning stool, and the malfunction – which would pose a hazard to anyone using the stool – points to negligence.”

There was no dispute that the U.S. Marshals maintained control of the interview room and regularly inspected it. Thus, the federal government could be liable for injuries sustained due to the malfunctioning stool. “The sort of malfunction that Smith has described is the kind of hazard that the government may be expected to guard against,” the Court of Appeals said in reversing the summary judgment order. The case remains pending on remand before the district court. See: Smith v. United States, 860 F.3d 995 (7th Cir. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Smith v. United States