Wednesday, February 5, 2014
C.A. Revives Mother’s Suit Over Jailhouse Killing
By MICHAEL J. PEIL, Staff Writer
The mother of an inmate who died while in custody at Men’s Central Jail can sue the county and a deputy sheriff who may have been responsible for the death, but cannot sue former Sheriff Lee Baca, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled.
Div. Eight, in an unpublished opinion by Justice Madeleine Flier, reversed on Friday the grant of summary judgment to the county and Deputy Christopher Kidder, while affirming the judgment in favor of Baca.
Flier explained that Helen Jones, the mother of John Horton, had submitted evidence raising triable issues of fact as to whether Horton had taken his own life or was the victim of an assault or murder. Horton was found hanged in his cell in March 2009.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Amy D. Hogue had entered summary judgment and judgment on the pleadings.
Hogue said that the county was protected from the causes of action for wrongful death and negligence by statutory immunity under Government Code §845.6.
The statute immunizes public entities for injury proximately caused by the failure of employees to obtain medical care for prisoners. The statute, however, also creates limited liability when an employee knows or has reason to know that the prisoner is in need of immediate medical care and fails to take reasonable action.
Horton entered the county jail on Feb. 24, 2009. In March, the court ordered that Horton be placed in the medical unit due to Horton’s “obvious mental health state.”
According to Jones’ complaint, the medical order was never implemented, and instead her son was placed in solitary confinement for 30 days, where she was denied permission to visit him after numerous attempts.
Jones alleged that Horton was subject to harassment, abuse, and outrageous conduct by the deputies in charge of his care, and on March 30, she contended, the deputies physically abused him “and/or facilitated Horton’s death by hanging while he was in solitary confinement.”
The county submitted declarations by medical experts opining that Horton died due to asphyxiation from hanging. Jones, however, submitted the declaration of an expert forensic pathologist who said death was due to internal bleeding in combination with the failure to provide medical attention.
Hogue said Jones failed to raise an issue as to whether Kidder had caused her son’s death.
She explained, citing Lucas v. City of Long Beach (1976) 60 Cal.App.3d 341, that an inmate’s act of committing suicide was an intervening, intentional act that superseded any negligence on the part of Kidder. Additionally, she said, even if Horton had died as a result of assault, Kidder would not be liable because Jones failed to offer evidence of the deputy’s involvement.
But Flier, writing for the Court of Appeal, reasoned that the county had not established immunity because, if the death was caused by internal bleeding, the county’s failure to provide medical attention might render it liable.
“The court considered only plaintiff’s theory that Horton evidenced a need for medical care relating to psychosis and had he been treated, he would not have committed suicide…But plaintiff’s separate theory that deputies assaulted and battered Horton also included the theory that they failed to summon immediate medical care…Under this theory, the County was not entitled to judgment.”
Flier explained that triable issues were presented by Jones’ evidence in the claims against Kidder. Jones presented circumstantial evidence to support the death by assault theory, she explained, that conflicted with the defense evidence. The evidence, she said, that Horton was confined to a cell which Kidder had access to at the time of death, combined with testimony that Horton suffered recent blunt force injuries, was enough to defeat summary judgment.
She said about Jones’ claim for negligence against Kidder:
“Deputy Kidder’s declaration demonstrated he did not do safety checks of [Horton’s] module at the required interval…[and] [c]onsistent with Lucas v. City of Long Beach, we will assume he was negligent because he had a duty to perform the required checks and he breached that duty.”
She concluded that due to this duty, Kidder would also have been aware of other guards’ use of force, if any, against the inmate in his care, and failure to halt the attack or summon medical care could lead to liability for negligence.
Horton’s death, and the subsequent investigations, led to the discovery that guards were failing to conduct checks of inmate welfare, and has been referred to as the “scannergate” scandal.
In 2007, the Sheriff’s Department installed barcode systems to ensure deputies were conducting welfare checks. The system uses barcode plaques that guards are supposed to scan as they walk by each row of cells.
Dennis Burns, chief of the custody operations division of the county’s jail system, reviewed the investigative reports and evidence gathered from Horton’s death.
In Burns’ declaration, submitted by the county, he explained that his investigation had revealed that jail guards had been circumventing welfare checks of prisoners by using “cheat sheets” to fraudulently scan the barcodes as though they were walking the rows performing the checks.
Another deputy responsible for a different area of inmates, Burns said, scanned Kidder’s barcode in his absence. Burns’ explained that Kidder had not made any barcode scans and that he had created handwritten records of row checks during his three-hour absence.
Burns did not identify Kidder by name in his declaration. But information submitted in support of Kidder’s separate motion for summary judgment makes clear that he was the absent deputy, Flier said.
The case is Jones v. County of Los Angeles, B241333.
Copyright 2014, Metropolitan News Company