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$54,000 Award for Georgia Prisoner in Failure-To-Protect Lawsuit

by David M. Reutter

A Georgia prisoner who got into a spat with a prison gang and was allegedly sold out to them by guards received a $54,000 judgment in a federal civil rights action on November 21, 2021.

Mixing it up at Ware State Prison with a prisoner in the Muslims gang on April 7, 2016, Christopher Bryan Stewart said he was surrounded by 10–15 gang members, whose leader threatened that if Stewart “said anything smart,” then “[w]e’ll kill you, [C]racker.”

Stewart reported the incident to a guard, who noted it in a logbook. But the guard then left the logbook out so that other prisoners could see it. Learning he had been labeled a “snitch” as a result by both the Muslims and another gang, the Bloods, Stewart filed an emergency grievance on April 14, 2016, alerting WSP officials about the earlier incident and how other prisoners had seen his report of it in the logbook. He also related stabbing threats he’d received. The grievance was received and reviewed the same day as filed, but it was denied on procedural grounds — for raising more than one issue.

Six days later, on April 20, 2016, Stewart was attacked by a prisoner wielding a padlock in a sock. He struck Stewart in the face, promising that “[w]e’re going to split your fucking head open every time you hit the fucking compound, you snitch.” As a result, Stewart lost vision in his right eye.

He filed another emergency grievance on April 24, 2016, and he was moved to the “hole” for security segregation. But there he was still housed with other prisoners and without video monitoring. He was attacked a second time on April 25, 2016, by someone who told him, “This is for the Muslims.” The incident resulted in another head injury requiring five stitches. Stewart lost a lot of blood and was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD.

After exhausting his administrative remedies, Stewart filed suit in federal court for the Southern District of Georgia under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, lodging failure-to-protect allegations against several WSP officials, including Deputy Warden of Care and Treatment Edwina Johnson and Grievance Coordinator Elizabeth Saenz, also known as Bowles.

Several defendant WSP employees, including Johnson and Bowles, claimed they didn’t believe Stewart faced a serious risk and moved for summary judgment. But the Court said their beliefs weren’t what mattered. It denied the motion on October 16, 2020, quoting Mitchell v. Jackson, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 161198 (S.D. Ga.), to note that “‘the deliberate indifference element [of Plaintiff’s Eighth Amendment claim] cannot be resolved based solely on Defendants’ allegations regarding their beliefs’” that the risk he faced was not serious or imminent. See: Stewart v. Johnson, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 192442 (S.D. Ga.).

The case proceeded to a trial, where a jury awarded Stewart damages from Johnson and Bowles. Once the parties then agreed on attorney fees and costs, the Court entered judgment awarding Stewart $18,000 plus costs and attorney fees of $36,000 for a total award of $54,000. He was represented by attorneys Mark Begnaud and Nathanael A. Horsley of Horsley Begnaud LLC in Atlanta. See: Stewart v. Johnson, USDC (S.D. Ga.), Case No. 5:18-cv-00037. 

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