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Oklahoma: Sovereign Immunity Prohibits Lawsuits Over Prisoner Medical Care

Oklahoma’s Supreme Court held on December 4, 2018 that the state is entitled to sovereign immunity to all tort suits, including violations of constitutional rights, arising out of the “operation or maintenance of any prison, jail or correctional facility.”

That ruling came in consolidated cases where two federal district courts certified questions on the issue to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The federal courts were overseeing lawsuits brought by the estates of two prisoners who died in Oklahoma county jails; Russell Foutch had committed suicide, while Randall Barrios died from complications related to pneumonia. The certified questions were the result of motions to dismiss filed by the defendants, who asserted sovereign immunity.

The questions asked whether in light of the Governmental Tort Claims Act (GTCA), Okla. Stat. tit. 51, § 151 et seq., which renders Oklahoma immune from any tort suit arising out of a prison, jail or correctional facility, can a prisoner bring a tort claim for denial of medical care under §§ 7 and 9 of Article II of the Oklahoma Constitution? And if so, could the cause of action be recognized retrospectively?

The Oklahoma Supreme Court consolidated the two cases. It noted that in 2014 the state legislature amended the GTCA to include alleged violations of constitutional rights as torts governed by the statute, and specifically prohibited tort suits arising from injuries that resulted from the “[p]rovision, equipping, operation or maintenance of any jail, prison, or correctional facility.”

The Supreme Court answered the certified questions by stating that sovereign immunity under the GTCA prohibits prisoners from bringing constitutional tort suits for denial of medical care under §§ 7 and 9 of Article II of the Oklahoma Constitution. “We have long recognized that the Legislature has the final say in defining the scope of the State’s sovereign immunity from suit,” the Court wrote. See: Barrios v. Haskell City Public Facilities Authority, 2018 OK 90, 432 P.3d 233 (OK 2018). 

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Related legal case

Barrios v. Haskell City Public Facilities Authority