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Eighth Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Prisoner’s Suit Over Inadequate Shoes

by Chad Marks

Geronimo DeLuna was housed at theMower County jail in Minnesota when guards made him wear shoes that were too small for his feet. The improperly-sized footwear, according to DeLuna, resulted in a blister that caused a severe infection requiring multiple corrective surgeries over a 10-day period.

Along with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, DeLuna filed suit in federal court. He raised a claim of negligence, arguing the too-small shoes resulted in a Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) infection. He also cited inadequate medical care and failure to adequately train jail staff in providing suitable shoes, among other causes of action.

The defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court concluded that DeLuna failed to show the county had breached a duty of care, and failed to show how any such breach proximately caused his injuries. Further, the court concluded the county was entitled to vicarious official immunity. In particular, it found that providing prisoners with “suitable” shoes was a discretionary duty, and that the guards did not act willfully and maliciously when providing DeLuna with shoes that were too small for him.

DeLuna appealed to the Eighth Circuit, arguing the district court’s ruling was erroneous and that it should not have granted summary judgment to the defendants. The Court of Appeals agreed in an August 21, 2019 decision.

In siding with DeLuna, the appellate court cited Minnesota negligence law as well as Domagala v. Rolland, 805 N.W.2d 14 (Min. 2011), which held, “[G]eneral negligence law imposes a general duty of reasonable care when the defendant’s own conduct creates a foreseeable risk of injury to a foreseeable plaintiff.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court had emphasized the key is whether a defendant had “reasonable ground to anticipate that a particular act would or might result in any injury” to the plaintiff, even if the defendant “could not have anticipated the particular injury which did happen.”

The Eighth Circuit held there was a genuine issue of fact as to whether the county had breached its duty of care, stating, “The district court erred when it concluded to the contrary on the basis that DeLuna’s MRSA infection was not a foreseeable consequence of wearing too-small shoes.” The proper question was whether some harm was foreseeable even if the ultimate injury that occurred was not.

The appellate court also concluded that DeLuna had presented a triable issue of fact as to whether the jail staff caused his MRSA infection.

The county’s argument that even if it were negligent it was entitled to vicarious official immunity was rejected by the Court of Appeals. Relying on Wiederholt v. City of Minneapolis, 581 N.W. 2d 312 (Minn. 1998), the Court held that vicarious official immunity does not apply to ministerial duties. Providing suitable shoes to detainees in a county jail setting is ministerial, the appellate court wrote. Accordingly, the summary judgment order was reversed; the district court judge recused himself following remand, and the case is pending. See: DeLuna v. Mower County, 936 F.3d 711 (8th Cir. 2019). 

Related legal case

DeLuna v. Mower County