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Judge Calls Prison Guard ‘Feckless Coward’ Yet Still Grants Him Immunity in Lawsuit

by Dale Chappell

 A jail guard who ran and hid when a prisoner he was watching grabbed his gun and terrorized a hospital was a “feckless coward,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said, but nevertheless held on September 18, 2019, that he was entitled to qualified immunity, shielding him from a lawsuit filed by hospital staff and patients.

The guard, Shawn Loomis, had the job of watching over a prisoner, Tywon Salters, who was taken to Delnor Community Hospital after a suicide attempt. Though Loomis was required to keep Salters shackled at all times, he ignored this and let Salters roam free, unrestrained.

Despite that Salters had a history of violence, was in jail on a parole violation for stealing a car, was an active member of the Black Disciple gang, was on psychiatric medications and was denied bond because of all of this, Loomis still unshackled Salters even after he was told not to by his supervisors.

On May 13, 2017, Salters – still unshackled in the hospital – overpowered Loomis and took his gun from him. Salters then took a nurse hostage at gunpoint and forced her to strip naked. He took another nurse hostage and raped and beat her. In all, he took three nurses hostage and terrorized numerous hospital staff and patients.

At 4 p.m. that day, the Kane County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team shot and killed Salters, and the bullet that killed him also hit the nurse that Salters raped and beat.

In a lawsuit filed by some of the nurses and patients in federal court in Chicago, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve ruled on April 11, 2018, that the lawsuit could move forward against Loomis, denying his motion to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity. The judge found that Loomis was aware of Salters’ “violent propensities” and that he lost control over him, causing the hostage situation and injuries to the bystanders.

Judge St. Eve relied mainly on an opinion by Judge Frank Easterbrook of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Paine v. Cason, 678 F.3d 500 (7th Cir. 2012), where the Court held that the police placing a person in a dangerous situation that caused injuries violated the arrestee’s constitutional rights and therefore the law was “clearly established” barring qualified immunity for the officers. Under federal law, a public official has “qualified immunity” if the law is not “clearly established” that their actions (or inactions) are not allowed.

In that case, the Court held that “State actors who needlessly create risks of harm violate the due process clause by depriving persons of life, liberty, and property without process.” St. Eve’s opinion followed the Paine decision and the examples provided by Easterbrook in that case.

When Loomis appealed Judge St. Eve’s denial of his qualified immunity claim, Judge Easterbrook headed up that opinion for the Court of Appeals – but this time he said that the law was not clearly established as to Loomis’ duty to keep Salters under control so that he would not attack the public.

Easterbrook said Loomis was not the one who created the risk of danger to the public, even though he was the one who took the shackles off the prisoner and let him roam free. Instead, Easterbrook said it was the decision of the higher-ups who did that by transferring Salters to the hospital.

All Loomis did, Easterbrook said, was merely “increase the danger by removing Salters from his shackles, negligently permitting him to get the gun, and running away” to hide. Thus, Loomis didn’t “intend” to harm hospital staff and patients, the judge said.

So, because the law was only “clearly established” that Loomis did not create the danger, his actions that only increased the danger allowed him qualified immunity, and the Court reversed the district court’s decision denying Officer Loomis qualified immunity from the lawsuit. See: Weiland v. Loomis, 18-2054 (7th Cir. Sept. 18, 2019).

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Related legal case

Weiland v. Loomis