Monday, February 7, 2011

Inmate can sue Nassau County over genitalia rodent bite

I remember picking a jury for a trial involving an ex-inmate from the County jail. A potential juror told the judge that she did not want to waste her time on a case filed by a prisoner. The judge told the potential juror that this comment was disgraceful. The judge's point was that everyone deserves a fair jury. But you cannot escape the public's view of prisoners, including people who were not yet convicted of anything.

The case is Solomon v. Nassau County, 2011 WL 66128 (EDNY Jan. 7, 2011), decided by Eastern District Judge Arthur Spatt. This case got some news coverage, and some jurors will object to hearing the case, but like all cases that go to trial, it raises important legal questions, in this case, a constitutional issue about the proper treatment of inmates.

Solomon was in Nassau County jail as a pre-trial detainee. He was not yet convicted. He was sleeping in his cell when a rat jumped out of the mattress and bit his penis. Rats are unsanitary and disgusting, and Solomon suffered serious emotional distress over this. He sued the County under the Constitution's cruel and unusual punishment clause. Judge Spatt denied the motion for summary judgment, sending the case to trial.

Since unsanitary conditions can cause serious health problems, the judge says the jury may find that the County was deliberately indifferent to detainees like Solomon because the evidence shows that many formal and informal inmate grievances complained about rodent infestation at the jail, and a corrections officer also testified that he occasionally sees mice in the dorms. This means the County cannot simply argue that it was unaware of the problem. While the County says it did the best it could in dealing with vermin, the jury could find otherwise. While policy dictated that the outside pest control company must be made aware of any rodents, that did not always happen. The jail also failed to implement recommendations by the pest control company about ways to reduce the presence of rodents, and the evidence also suggests the jail was not doing enough to clean the cells.

So the case goes to trial. During jury selection, the potential jurors are asked if they can be fair in hearing the case. The judge will have to make sure that the public's general bias against inmates does not infect the jury pool. That will not be easy. Not every potential juror is as blatant as the woman who told the judge in our case that she did not want to waste her time on an inmate's case.

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