The “Collective Action” Theory in Jail Death and Excessive Force Cases

In wrongful death cases arising from an inmate’s death in jail, federal claims may be asserted under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 for violations of the 14th Amendment (in the case of pretrial detainees) or the 8th Amendment (in the case of convicted prisoners).  Regardless of which kind of claim is asserted, however, it must generally be shown that individual jail staff members or medical providers committed an underlying constitutional violation.  If the underlying constitutional violation can be demonstrated, the court can then consider whether the county, city or jail health services company employing those individuals are also liable for having customs, policies or practices in place that led to the constitutional deprivation.

In cases of wrongful death in jail arising from failure to provide medical care, claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 require showing more than that the jail staff was negligent or even grossly negligent.  Rather, one or more individuals must be shown to have been “deliberately indifferent” to the serious medical needs of the inmate.  This requires demonstrating that the individuals in question knew of, and consciously disregarded a known, serious risk to the inmate.

Sometimes, however, due to the way jails are staffed, it can be difficult to show that any one individual was “deliberately indifferent” within the meaning of the law.  This difficulty can arise when when multiple individuals have discrete responsibility for the inmate over a period of time.  For example, it might not be “deliberately indifferent” for one medical provider to miss taking an inmate’s vital signs on a single occasion if the inmate is in medical distress.  But if the next medical provider also misses a vital signs check, along with the next, and the next, and so on, the combined omissions of the medical providers could be deliberately indifferent when they are aggregated together.

In situations such as this, some courts have approved of a kind of deliberate indifference test based on the idea of “collective action.”  One court has ruled, for example, that “even if the acts or omissions of no single employee constitute deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs or safety of an inmate, the combined acts or omissions of several employees acting pursuant to governmental practice, policy or custom may constitute deliberate indifference to an inmate’s serious medical needs.”  In such circumstances, it might be possible to win a Section 1983 case against the municipality employing those officers (or the private health care provider contracting with the municipality) without the need to show that any one individual deliberately ignored an inmate’s serious medical needs.  This is similar to a concept that some courts apply in excessive force cases by multiple officers, where the combined force (baton strikes, for example) of multiple officers is excessive when considered in totality even if no one officer alone used excessive force.  (In excessive force cases, it is not necessary to show deliberate indifference — only showing of unreasonableness is required.  But the collective action theory can be useful in such cases as well.)

Courts in the Ninth Circuit (covering Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Montana and Arizona) have recognized the “collective action” theory.  So too have courts in the Tenth Circuit (covering Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas), the Eighth Circuit (covering Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri), the Eleventh Circuit (covering Alabama, Florida and Georgia) and the Second Circuit (covering Connecticut, New York and Vermont).  These decisions and others may be persuasive in courts where the collective action theory has not yet been formally recognized.

In short, simply because no one officer can be shown to have been “deliberately indifferent” does not necessarily foreclose the possibility of a case under Section 1983.  Careful analysis of each case is required to determine whether a constitutional claim can be proven.

The attorneys at Budge & Heipt have successfully handled jail death and excessive force cases in a variety of jurisdictions, including cases brought under the “collective action” theory.  If you would like to discuss a case involving a jail death or serious injuries due to excessive police force, please contact our office for a free consultation.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.