Guard Who Failed to Prevent Escape Entitled to Qualified Immunity
by David M. Reutter
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held on September 18, 2019 that a guard cannot be held liable under the Constitution for failing to prevent an escape.
In an attempt to apparently commit suicide, Tyson Salters, a pretrial detainee at the Kane County jail in Illinois, swallowed some cleaning fluid. He was taken to a hospital and ordered to remain in shackles. Guard Shawn Loomis disobeyed that order and removed the restraints when Salters requested to use the bathroom.
Once free of the shackles, Salters grabbed Loomis’ gun and escaped. As he terrorized hospital staff and visitors, Loomis hid. Three hours after being cornered, a SWAT team killed him. Two people at the hospital who claimed they were frightened but not injured sued Loomis, Kane County, the hospital and its security service.
The district court denied Loomis’ motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds, holding liability was created under the “state-created danger exception.” The county appealed.
The Seventh Circuit noted the plaintiffs did not allege that “Loomis intended harm to the Hospital’s staff, patients, and visitors – he appears, instead, to be a feckless coward, but the district judge thought that negligence leading to bystanders’ danger could lead to liability.”
The Court of Appeals disagreed. “The problem with this reasoning is that it starts and ends at a high level of generality.” The Court said the state-created danger exception is “a principle, not a rule,” as it “does not tell any public employee what to do, or avoid in any situation.”
“A principle can be clearly established without matching a later case’s facts. The search is for an appropriate level of generality, not the most particular conceivable level,” the appellate court wrote. “And the level of generality is appropriate when it establishes the rule in a way that tells a public employee what the Constitution requires in a situation the employee faces.”
The Seventh Circuit noted its sister appellate courts that have considered whether a constitutional obligation exists to keep a prisoner under control have rejected that requirement. While Loomis’ actions may have constituted official negligence, they did not reach the level of a constitutional violation.
The district court’s order denying Loomis qualified immunity was reversed. See: Weiland v. Loomis, 938 F.3d 917 (7th Cir. 2019).
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Related legal case
Weiland v. Loomis
|Cite||18-2054 (7th Cir. Sept. 18, 2019)|
|Level||Court of Appeals|