U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras today ordered (PDF) a new trial in a lawsuit against the District of Columbia filed by Antoine Wilkins, a former inmate who was attacked by another prisoner. Wilkins sued the city for negligence after he was stabbed at the District of Columbia Jail in 2005.
Contreras reversed a ruling by now-retired U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. granting the District judgment. He found that Kennedy's ruling was based on incorrect arguments from both sides about the standard for finding the city liable for a third-party's criminal acts in jail.
In most cases where a defendant is facing charges of liability for a third-party's criminal actions, there's a "heightened foreseeability standard," Contreras wrote, noting that this standard was the basis for the city's arguments that it couldn't be held liable in Wilkins' case. But he found that in cases involving a jailhouse attack, the city faces a lower "ordinary negligence standard" because it already has a responsibility for security in what is widely-acknowledged to be a high-risk environment.
Two weeks after Wilkins entered the custody of the city's Department of Corrections in June 2005, he was attacked and stabbed nine times by another inmate, George Foreman, according to his complaint. He filed a lawsuit against the city in March 2006.
He accused jail officials of negligence, claiming that his attacker was allowed to move within the jail unsupervised and had access to a mop closet, a notorious hiding spot for inmate contraband, according to Wilkins' complaint.
A jury trial began on July 26, 2010. The next day, the city made an oral motion in court for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that Wilkins had failed to meet the "heightened foreseeability standard." Kennedy agreed, dismissing the jury and entering an order of judgment for the city. Wilkins filed a motion for reconsideration in August of that year.
Kennedy didn't take any action on the motion before he retired late last year, according to the docket. In May, the case was reassigned to Contreras, who was confirmed to the federal bench in March. Contreras, finding that Wilkins had presented enough evidence to support a claim of negligence, vacated Kennedy's opinion and ordered a new trial.
"In sum, the circumstantial evidence of Mr. Foreman's freedom of movement is enough to have allowed a jury to conclude that the District’s negligence was a proximate cause of Mr. Wilkins's injury—and the jury need not have engaged in impermissible speculation to reach that conclusion," Contreras wrote.
A lead attorney for Wilkins, Washington solo practitioner Donald Temple, said in an interview today that Contreras ruling was "critical" for liability cases involving prisoners in the future. "You can't have a prisoner roaming around the jail as if it's a shopping mall, particularly when…it's known that these prisoners retrieve weapons from the mop closet," he said.
A spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General, Ted Gest, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.