Wrongful Death in Jail: Suing for Inmate on Inmate Assaults

Jails and prisons are dangerous places. Violence among inmates is not uncommon. That said, state and local correctional facilities have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect inmates from foreseeable harm by other inmates. And when someone is seriously hurt or killed because the prison or jail breaches this duty, they (or their estate) may have a well-grounded case for wrongful death against the government entity that operates the facility.

The lawyers at Budge & Heipt regularly review cases involving serious inmate-against-inmate assaults. It bears remembering that jails and prisons are not liable simply because an inmate has been hurt or killed by another. As with almost all torts, prevailing in these cases boils down to proving fault. What did the jail or prison do or fail to do that unreasonably allowed the assault to occur?

Typically, a viable inmate-on-inmate assault case involves one of two fact patterns. In some cases, the institution may have reason to know the victim is likely to be particularly vulnerable (e.g., because of the nature of their crime, their high-profile status, their sexual orientation, their gang affiliation, or because of some other factor that makes them likely to be targeted) but fails to take measures to house them in protective custody. In other cases, the assailant may be known to be particularly dangerous (e.g., because they have assaulted other inmates or made threats of other violence in the past or because of severe mental illness), but the facility fails to segregate the inmate away from others they might harm. In either case, liability depends on proving that the institution failed to take reasonable steps to screen and segregate inmates according to the potential risks.

Gaining access to information sufficient to prove fault can be tricky before litigation is commenced. In many cases, a violent assault may appear to come “out of the blue” or be related to some dispute between the inmates about which the facility wouldn’t have had reason to know. When the assault results in death, an important source of information (the testimony of the victim about what may have led up to the assault) will not be available. And if case involves an assailant with a possible history of violence in jail or prison, it may be exceedingly difficult to gain access to that assailant’s incarceration records (pre-litigation) through public records requests. But, if police reports and internal critical incident reports can be obtained through public records requests, these reports may provide clues about what led up to the assault—and whether it might’ve been preventable. An attorney reviewing such a case must sometimes “read between the lines” and make an educated judgment about whether discovery is likely to reveal more useful information that may support the anticipated case.

Our firm recently went to trial in a wrongful death case against the State of Washington in a case involving a fatal assault by one inmate against another at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. During the case, we showed the jury that the alleged assailant had previously brutally assaulted another cellmate—choking him, beating him, and sending him to the hospital with serious injuries—in a violent, unprovoked, and premeditated attack. Unfortunately, however, the prison failed to adequately follow its own screening procedures after that assault. Despite knowing about the prisoner’s violent history, the prison failed to segregate the violent inmate and allowed him to be housed in the same cell with another person yet again. That person, a young man named Keenan Thomas, unfortunately became yet another victim. And this time, the assault was fatal.

Despite the fact that the killing was not criminally prosecuted (possibly for reasons relating to problems with the original autopsy and/or failures to properly preserve the crime scene), we sued the state for negligently causing Keenan’s death by failing to have single-celled the prisoner with the known history of violence.

The case went to a jury trial in King County Superior Court in October 2021. Among our witnesses were the two DOC employees who’d recommended that the prisoner be single-celled (but whose recommendations were overruled).  After four days of trial, and as we neared closing our case-in-chief, we reached a settlement with the state for $3 million.

In another case, also handled by Budge & Heipt, the firm obtained a settlement of $1.5 million for the death of a prisoner at the hands of another with a known history of violence and violent threats.

It bears repeating that not all inmate-on-inmate assaults subject jail or prison operators to legal liability. We decline many such cases where we don’t feel there is sufficient evidence of government fault. Of the limited number of such cases we do accept, we think carefully about whether to pursue such cases under Section 1983 or as negligence claims under state law. Moreover, lawyers should be cognizant of the fact that jurors (perhaps rightly) recognize that jails and prisons cannot be expected to prevent all inmate-against-inmate violence. To pursue these cases successfully, lawyers should be prepared to delve deeply into the facts and to develop themes that will resonate with jurors—like the public promise of prisons to operate a safe and human corrections system while offering inmates a chance for rehabilitation and to correct the behavior that caused them to go to prison in the first place. That is, after all, why prison systems are generally called “Departments of Corrections.” And for many prisoners who are committed to taking advantage of what the system has to offer, prison is supposed to be exactly that—a prison sentence. Not a death sentence.

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.