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Showing posts with label intoxication. Show all posts
Showing posts with label intoxication. Show all posts

Friday, July 22, 2022

Court denies police immunity under state tort claims act in death of intoxicated man in protective custody

Michael Coghlan CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
In a lawsuit over the death of an intoxicated man in police protective custody, the defendants were not entitled to immunity under exceptions to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA), the Commonwealth Appeals Court held in April.

Police in New Bedford, Mass., took the plaintiff's decedent into protective custody upon finding him in a state of heavy intoxication and disturbing the peace. Police put the man in a county jail cell, where he got into an altercation with another detainee. The other detainee pushed the man to the ground, where he hit his head. The man died from complications of the injury.

Defendant officials sought immunity from the plaintiff's negligence lawsuit under the discretionary function exception to the MTCA, section 10(b), and under the causation limitation of MTCA section 10(j).

Section 10(b) is similar to the discretionary function exception of the Federal Tort Claims Act. It disallows tort claims when public defendants exercise policy-making discretion, even when discretion is abused. The theory behind this exception is that public officials require latitude to make decisions, good and bad, and not every government decision should be second-guessed in litigation. The tort claims act reserves for litigation cases in which standards of conduct are set or clear, and the plaintiff alleges negligence relative to that standard.

The court denied defendants discretionary function immunity, because state law provides that persons in protective custody should be held at police stations, referred to appropriate care facilities, or returned home. The plaintiff alleged that the decedent's commitment to the county jail was improper and proximately caused the injury and death. Police had no discretion under the law to detain the decedent in the county jail.

MTCA section 10(j) is a creature specially of commonwealth law and articulates a potent liability limitation arising in causation. Section 10(j) disallows liability for 

any claim based on an act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of a condition or situation, including the violent or tortious conduct of a third person, which is not originally caused by the public employer or any other person acting on behalf of the public employer.

Thus, state defendants disavow liability under section 10(j) when the plaintiff's liability theory is in the nature of a failure to supervise or intervene, and the more proximate cause of the injury is the conduct of a third party. Here, the defense pointed to the push to the ground by the decedent's fellow detainee, if not the decedent's own provocation.

The court also denied the defendants 10(j) immunity. The official act relevant to the plaintiff's claim was the decision to place the decedent in a county jail cell with potentially dangerous detainees, the court opined, not the precise mechanism of injury that ensued.

The case is Baptista v. Bristol County Sheriff's Department, Nos. 20-P-731 & 20-P-778 (Mass. App. Ct. Apr. 15, 2022). Justice Peter J. Rubin wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.