Jim Porter: Liability for savage beating of arrestee in jail cell (opinion)
Sometimes I wonder what this world is coming to. Where does all the anger and lack of respect for human life come from? “Can’t we all just get along?”
Case in point: Jonathan Michael Castro v. County of Los Angeles.
Jonathan Michael Castro was arrested on October 2, 2009 for public drunkenness. He was transported to the West Hollywood Station jail and “for his safety” placed in a fully-walled sobering cell that was stripped of sharp objects and contained only a toilet and a series of mattress pads on the floor.
Jonathan Gonzalez was arrested after punching out a window at a nightclub. He was placed in the same sobering cell that housed Castro. Gonzalez’s intake form indicated he was “combative.”
That is an understatement. In fact, shortly after Gonzalez was placed in Castro’s cell, Castro pounded on the cell window attempting to attract attention. Twenty minutes later a community volunteer appeared. Castro appeared to be asleep; however, he was being “inappropriately touched by Gonzalez.” The volunteer immediately reported the improper contact to the supervising officer, Christopher Solomon.
Solomon took no action until he heard loud noises six minutes later. He rushed to the sobering cell and discovered Gonzalez stomping on Castro’s head. Solomon intervened, but too late. To this day, Castro remains incapable of performing simple life functions. His family handles his basic care. Castro sued to lighten that financial burden.
A lawsuit was filed in federal court by Castro against the County of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Guard Solomon, as well as the Watch Sergeant in charge of the jail as a whole, David Valentine.
The jury returned a verdict for Castro against the two guards, County of Los Angeles (County and Sheriff) awarding him over $2.6 million in past and future damages. All defendants appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Two Jail Guards
To recover from the two jail guards, Solomon and Valentine, Castro must show he faced a substantial risk of serious harm, and the defendants were “deliberately indifferent” to that risk which caused the harm he suffered.
A defendant is deemed “deliberately indifferent” to a substantial risk of harm when he knows of the risk and disregards it by failing to take reasonable measures to address the danger. The jury found Solomon and Valentine deliberately indifferent to Castro’s plight.
The Federal Court of Appeals upheld the verdict against Solomon because he delayed in responding to Castro’s plea, and upheld the verdict against Valentine because Valentine intentionally placed Gonzalez in Castro’s cell.
Neither guard was entitled to the usual “qualified immunity” from liability for most police officers’ actions.
In an interesting note (to a legal beagle like me), the Court of Appeals upheld modest punitive damage awards against Solomon and Valentine finding the two guards were guilty of “reckless disregard” which is necessary for a punitive damage award and essentially the same as “deliberate indifference.” That isn’t very interesting is it?
The final issue for the Court of Appeals was whether the County of Los Angeles was also liable to Castro.
After reviewing the evidence, the Court determined Castro had to prove the County was deliberately indifferent to his risk and it had actual knowledge of that risk. Not so. Los Angeles County escaped liability.
The dissenting judge would have found the County liable because it had actual knowledge of ignored State jail regulations — constituting deliberate indifference to Castro. My take is the dissenting judge wanted to find the County liable to generate improvements in jail policies for the betterment of prisoners.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee, Tahoe City and Reno. Jim’s practice areas include: development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.