Wednesday, January 22, 2020

State not responsible for inmate assault and battery

When is the government required to pay damages when a law enforcement officer attacks someone for no good reason? Police and correction officers get sued all the time for using excessive force. At least from the plaintiffs' perspective, we assume the government employer is on the hook for damages. This case challenges that assumption.

The case is Rivera v. State of New York, issued by the New York Court of Appeals on November 25. Plaintiff was incarcerated. Officer Wehby punched him about the face and head after mocking his seizure disorder. He them stomped on plaintiff, yelled expletives and said, "I hope you die." Plaintiff was then punched, kneed and kicked in the head. Plaintiff eventually lost consciousness. The officer was criminally prosecuted for the assault. The other officers involved were also fired. These awful allegations are not disputed.

Plaintiff brings this case under state law, not federal law, which would also entitle him to damages under 42 U.S.C. 1983. So the issue for the Court of Appeals is whether the state is responsible for covering plaintiff's damages. More precisely, we ask whether the officers' actions fell within the scope of their employment. Common-law principles tell us that, under the respondeat superior doctrine, employers are on the hook even for aberrant actions by their employees if they are acting within the scope of their employment, "so long as the tortious conduct is generally foreseeable and a natural incident of the employment." If the employee's actions depart from the "line of duty so that for the time being their acts constitute an abandonment of service, the employer is not liable."

Under these principles, the 4-3 majority holds, the state is not responsible for the use of force in this case. The Court reasons:

In some cases, particularly those involving occupations for which some physical contact with others is permissible or even expected, it may be difficult to determine whether a challenged action falls far enough outside the boundaries attendant to the employment relationship such that the employee should be solely liable for their respective tortious conduct. In those cases — where the question may be one of degree and not kind — the vicarious liability issue may be appropriately left to the fact-finder. But this is not such a case.

. . .

Here, the gratuitous and utterly unauthorized use of force was so egregious as to constitute a significant departure from the normal methods of performance of the duties of a correction officer as a matter of law. This was a malicious attack completely divorced from the employer's interests. Further, there is no evidence in the record that DOCCS should — or could — have reasonably anticipated such a flagrant and unjustified use of force, in which, assisted by other officers who immobilized and handcuffed claimant, Wehby repeatedly punched and kicked him during a prolonged assault, removing claimant's protective helmet in order to facilitate more direct blows to his head. As such, based on the uncontested facts, it is evident that claimant's injuries were not caused by actions taken within the scope of employment and thus, there were no triable issues of fact as to the State's vicarious liability for assault and battery.
The majority points out that plaintiff has other avenues for relief, including a constitutional claim under Section 1983.

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