Monday, November 15, 2004
C.A. Overturns $1 Million Award to Inmate Raped in County Jail
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A $1 million award by a Los Angeles Superior Court jury to an inmate who was physically and sexually assaulted while awaiting his court-ordered release from the County Jail has been overturned by this district’s Court of Appeal.
The attacks on Jay Reynolds “were an intervening, superseding cause which cut off the liability of the County of Los Angeles,” Justice Patti Kitching wrote Wednesday in an unpublished opinion for Div. Three. Reynolds, she concluded, is entitled only to the $25,000 the jury awarded him for his overdetention, plus reasonable attorney fees and costs.
Reynolds was arrested in 1999 following a traffic stop, after the officer ran a routine check and discovered a South Dakota warrant for his arrest on nonsupport charges.
While Reynolds spent nine days in jail awaiting extradition, a family member paid the past due support and the case was dismissed. A judge ordered his release, and he was taken back to the Inmate Reception Center and held overnight for administrative processing.
His “release pass” was issued at the jail at 7:41 a.m., about 20 hours after the judge ordered him freed.
At the trial of his subsequent suit against the county, he testified that after he told a fellow inmate—he had six cellmates—that he was being released, he was punched in the face by a third inmate, who then started pounding on his face and head and later anally raped him, penetrating him three times.
Another cellmate then forced him into oral sex, he said. Eventually the two assailants went to sleep.
Reynolds said he did not see a corrections officer until about 6 a.m. Once he did, he reported what happened, was taken to the jail infirmary, and was eventually picked up by family members at about 10 p.m.
Sheriff’s Department employees testified regarding release procedures and jail conditions. The head records clerk at IRC acknowledged that at the time of the incident, release orders were not accepted by fax—as they are now—nor could deputies initiate release procedures by phone.
Telephone transmission of release orders was not possible, she testified, because a deputy initiating a release could be impersonated. She acknowledged, however, that as a 30-year veteran of the records section, she knew the deputies and could verify their identities, thus expediting the release process, although this would mean handling 200 to 300 telephone calls daily.
Jurors concluded that Reynolds’ overdetention violated his rights under the Fourth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and was the proximate cause of his being pummeled and raped. The trial judge denied the county’s motions for new trial and JNOV and awarded $227,550 in attorney fees plus nearly $12,000 in costs, bringing the total judgment to nearly $1.265 million.
Kitching, however, reasoned that the criminal attacks on Reynolds were unforeseeable, and thus were a superseding cause of his injuries for which the county could not be held liable as a matter of law.
The justice noted that Reynolds had been housed with the same inmates for a week and had not been attacked, that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that prison authorities cannot be held liable as a matter of constitutional law for negligent failure to prevent inmate-on-inmate attacks, and that jurors “heard no evidence that rates of attacks by prisoners on cellmates was sufficiently high or frequent so as to make it foreseeable in these circumstances that these specific prisoners would attack Reynolds.”
Because the damage award was substantially reduced, the justice went on to say, the trial judge must also reconsider the attorney fee award.
Attorneys on appeal were Dennis M. Elber of Stolpman, Krissman, Elber & Silver for Reynolds and, Harold G. Becks and L’Tanya M. Butler of Harold G. Becks & Associates, along with Martin Stein and Barry M. Wolf of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland, for the county.
The case is Reynolds v. County of Los Angeles, B157249.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company