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Idaho Supreme Court Finds Ladderless Bunks a “Sound Discretionary Decision,” But Says Resulting Injury Could Give Rise to Negligence Claim

by Jacob Barrett

On February 25, 2022, the Supreme Court of Idaho reinstated a negligence claim lodged by a former prisoner against Ada County after he fell when ordered to descend from the top bunk of his cell for roll call while held at the county jail.

Suffering a head injury in the fall, the former prisoner, Tom Williamson, saw a physician after he was released. He was sent immediately to a hospital emergency room, where a CT scan confirmed he had sustained a concussion, for which he was instructed to attend a week of brain injury services at a physical therapy/concussion program.

Thereafter Williamson filed the necessary notice of a tort claim with the county before proceeding to file suit in the state’s Fourth Judicial District Court against the county and its sheriff—Stephen Bartlett, until his sudden retirement at the end of May 2021, and Matt Clifford since then—as well as two medical staffers who treated Williamson, accusing them of negligence, medical negligence and inflicting emotional distress.

The medical staffers were terminated from the case after Williamson failed to timely serve them, thereby dooming his medical-neglect claims, too. Ada County next moved to dismiss the remaining claims under Idaho Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), asserting statutory immunity because its decisions about prisoner safety and bedding fall under the “discretionary function” exception to governmental liability in the state Tort Claims Act, found at Idaho Code §6-904(1). Williamson did not file any written opposition to the motion; however, his counsel opposed it at oral argument. Nevertheless, the district court granted dismissal to Ada County. Williamson filed a timely notice of appeal.

Taking up the case then, the state Supreme Court first affirmed the district court’s finding that selecting jail beds was a discretionary function for which state law granted Ada County immunity. Williamson argued that the county failed to introduce adequate facts to support this, but the Court said the county and the district court relied on a factually similar case that arose out of the federal district court in Connecticut, Francis v. United States, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89976 (D. Conn.), in which the plaintiff’s negligence claims were also dismissed after she fell and injured her ankle descending from a top bunk in a cell and blamed the fact that the bunk bed did not have a ladder.

Moreover, that Ada County’s decision to use ladderless bunk beds was discretionary was supported by other courts that had come to the same conclusion, the Court continued, pointing first to Preston v. United States, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75386 (N.D. Ga.), where a federal court found “sound public policy reasons for not providing ladders on bunk beds in federal prisons … grounded in prison and inmate safety.” Also there was Jackson v. United States, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102998 (W.D. Pa.), adopted by 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50475 (W.D. Pa.), where another federal court held that the decision not to add ladders to bunk beds due to prison and inmate safety was “precisely the type of policy decision that is protected by the discretionary function exception.” And finally there was Manning v. Flock, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44955 (M.D. Pa.), where still another federal court said that “the decision whether to provide ladders for upper bunk access involves policy choices” that courts “should not second guess.”

The Court next turned to Williamson’s claim that Ada County was negligent in ordering him to descend from the top bunk for roll call, which the district court had also dismissed. Williamson argued that the district court failed to decide whether that order was a discretionary decision entitled to immunity. Ada County responded that the district court had, in fact, “appropriately ruled that the decision on the jail roll call process is discretionary.”

The Court, however, found that Ada County’s conclusion was not supported by the record. “In particular,” the Court found “no evidence” that the county had “a roll call policy in place.” Moreover, Williamson “characterized the jailer’s decision to have him descend from his bunk bed for roll call as ‘a decision of the officer on duty that day’ rather than a ‘policy’,” the Court continued.

Thus, the district court’s decision on this issue was reversed and the case remanded on Williamson’s claim that Ada County was negligent in ordering him to descend from the top bunk for roll call. Williamson was represented by Boise attorney Johannes S. A. Claus III. See: Williamson v. Ada Cty., 509 11 P.3d 1133 (2022). 

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Related legal case

Williamson v. Ada Cty.