by Matt Clarke
On July 22, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reinstated claims previously dismissed in a lawsuit filed over a detainee’s fatal beating at a prison privately operated by LaSalle Management Co. for the city of Monroe, Louisiana.
Monroe ceased leasing beds from LaSalle at Richwood Correctional Center (RCC) in 2019. But when cops arrested Erie Moore, Sr., on October 12, 2015, he was booked into the lockup on a charge of disturbing the peace. Moore was agitated and noncompliant during booking, so duty nurse William Mitchell did not complete the medical part of the intake process before Moore was placed in a lockdown cell.
Shift supervisor Gerald Hardwell then placed another combative detainee in the same cell, with predictable results: The two men began fighting. Soon Moore’s cellmate, Vernon White, 28, lay dying on the floor. Moore ignored the commands of guards sent to extract White’s unconscious body until guard Christopher Loring pepper sprayed him in the face and guard Jeremy Runner struck him in the back of the head, driving him to the ground. They then dragged White’s body from the cell. He later died at a hospital. [See: PLN, Mar. 2018, p.20.]
More guards, including Reginald Williams, and Reginald Curley, joined Runner and Hardwell to extract Moore from the cell. As Moore was sitting on his bunk, Hardwell pepper-sprayed him in the face – twice. Moore then complied with an order to stand and place his hands on the top bunk. At that point, Hardwell grabbed him from behind, pivoted and slammed him head-first into the concrete floor.
The guards then handcuffed Moore as he lay stunned, face-down on the floor. They removed him from the cell, slamming him head-first into the floor again. They also dropped him while carrying him to a surveillance camera blind spot called the “Four-Way” – allegedly used often by jail staff to discipline detainees with pepper-spray and beatings.
Moore was in the Four-Way for about two hours before he was turned over unresponsive to Ouachita Parish deputies. They took him to a hospital, where a skull fracture was diagnosed. He died without regaining consciousness. The parish coroner “ruled Moore’s death a ‘homicide,’ caused by ‘head injuries received while in jail’ creating ‘pneumonia complicating [those] blunt force head injuries,’” the Court recalled.
Moore’s survivors filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing LaSalle, RCC and the city of deliberate indifference to the risk that guards posed to him, in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights. The federal court for the Western District of Louisiana summarily dismissed almost all of Plaintiffs’ claims. Aided by attorney Nelson W. Cameron of Shreveport, with co-counsel provided by Orrick, Harrington & Sutcliffe of Washington, DC, plaintiffs appealed.
The Fifth Circuit began by noting that former guards and even defendants testified that pepper spray was frequently used on handcuffed prisoners at RCC. Guards bragged about taking prisoners to the Four-Way to “teach them a lesson” away from security cameras. “Even an Assistant Warden at the prison admitted that both he and guards used the Four-Way to ‘interrogate’ prisoners,” the Court said. Thus a reasonable jury could find the guards and Mitchell were deliberately indifferent to a serious risk of harm to Moore.
The complaint also raised disputed issues of material facts as to whether the guards’ use of excessive force caused Moore’s death. The Court examined this under the standards of Louisiana statutes governing wrongful death actions as well as those making claims of survivorship. But either way, it said that “a reasonable jury could conclude that each individual Defendant, except for Mitchell, played an important role in causing Moore’s death.”
“Video evidence shows Moore’s head striking the ground repeatedly – strikes caused by Runner punching Moore, Hardwell slamming Moore onto the ground and two other guards dropping Moore on the ground while carrying him,” the Court noted. “Few things could be more self-evident than that repeated head strikes could cause a fatal head injury.”
The Court noted there was also sufficient evidence of a custom or practice to use the Four-Way to physically abuse detainees. Both the city and its private contractor could be held liable for such policies and customs, under Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978) – even if the custom violated a contractual obligation, as the Court ruled in Arnone v. Cnty. of Dall. Cnty., 29 F.4th 262 (5th Cir. 2022). [See: PLN, Mar. 2023, p.32.]
As for damages, the Court said, corporations are not immune under common law, which is the first requirement of a damages analysis under Cty. of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247 (1981). “In sum, Plaintiffs’ claims for punitive damages should have survived summary judgment,” the Court concluded. “[Richwood and LaSalle] are not immune, and Plaintiffs have raised fact disputes over whether the defendants – other than Mitchell – acted with reckless or callous indifference,” as laid out in Sockwell v. Phelps, 20 F.3d 187 (5th Cir. 1994).
“The record in this case is beyond troubling,” the Court allowed. But it quickly added that “Plaintiffs still have a long way to go” to succeed on their claims. Given there are “fact disputes galore, it will take a jury to decide” the appropriate outcome. Thus summary judgment was affirmed with respect to Mitchell’s liability in Moore’s death and reversed in all other aspects. See: Moore v. LaSalle Mgmt. Co., 41 F.4th 493 (5th Cir. 2022).
White’s survivors also sued over his death in the same district court. Their Bossier City attorney, Patrick R. Jackson, negotiated a settlement with LaSalle for his minor children for an undisclosed sum, which was approved in 2018. See: White v. LaSalle Corr., Inc., USDC (W.D. La.), Case No. 3:16-cv-01405.
The case over Moore’s death has now returned to the district court, and PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Moore v. LaSalle Corr., Inc., USDC (W.D. La.), Case No. 3:16-cv-01007.
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