Plaintiffs do not have to show that jailers caused a death to recover for excessive force


Many cities privatize their prisons. Monroe, Louisiana is no exception. From 2001–2019, the City engaged Richwood Correctional Center, LLC, to house arrestees and inmates. Richwood assigned its rights and obligations under the agreement to LaSalle Management, LLC. In short, Richwood owned the prison. LaSalle ran it. And as part of running the prison, LaSalle hired Ray Hanson to serve as warden.

Former staff paint a grim picture of what went as customary punishment at the prison. Yolanda Jackson, who worked as a staffer for three years, alleged that guards including supervisors used chemical spray on handcuffed prisoners many times. Two defendants under oath admitted to this.

Cameras at the prison abound— except in one twelve-by-twelve-foot area. Called the “Four-Way” by the parties, it’s the one area of the prison with no cameras. Per Jackson, many guards openly bragged to her about taking prisoners to the Four-Way to teach them a lesson off camera through force. Two prison guards under oath stated they used the Four-Way to abuse multiple handcuffed detainees.

Police arrested Erie Moore for disturbing the peace at a donut shop in Monroe, Louisiana. Police then transported Moore to the prison for booking. As Moore was agitated and non-compliant they placed him in a cell. Gerald Hardway, the shift supervisor, could have placed him alone but chose to put him in a cell with Vernon White, another combative detainee.

The two fought and guards broke it up but they remained in the cell together. They fought again and then only Moore was seen on the camera for a while. Guard Jeremy Runner arrived and found White who was seizing and on the floor.

When they opened the cell to extract White, Moore ignored their verbal commands. In response, Christopher Loring sprayed Moore in the face with chemical spray. Runner then struck Moore in the back of the head, knocking him to the ground. Officers then dragged White into the hall. White later died at a nearby hospital.

The guards then formed a plan to extract Moore from the cell. Among them were Hardwell, Runner, Reginald Williams, and Reginald Curley. Hardwell grabbed Moore around the chest. Hardwell then picked Moore up and moved him toward the open door. He carried Moore while walking backward. Hardwell then suddenly pivoted, slamming Moore onto the ground in the process.

Moore’s body and head hit the floor. Subdued, two guards moved to pick up a handcuffed and face-down Moore. One guard held Moore’s legs. Runner grabbed Moore’s arms. With Moore in tow, the guards started walking. But then they stumbled. Moore hit the ground—headfirst. Guards then picked Moore back up and carried him to the Four-Way.

It’s unclear what all happened during Moore’s roughly two hours in the Four-Way. Some evidence suggests that off-camera guards repeatedly beat and pepper-sprayed Moore until he lay unconscious. One guard, John Badger, testified that another guard who had been present in the Four-Way with Moore had bragged about bringing Moore to the cameraless Four-Way so guards could beat him to death and finish him.

William Mitchell, nurse, likewise testified that he had heard a commotion in the Four-Way as guards subdued Moore. Moore was still responsive at that point. He confirmed that he was sore and that his handcuffs were too tight. Mitchell also noticed a vanilla wafer-sized bump on the middle of Moore’s head—not present the day before during Moore’s screening.

Mitchell left but later returned. This time Moore was unresponsive. But Mitchell did not check Moore’s vitals. All Mitchell did was to see if he could get Moore to wake up, something he tested by rubbing Moore’s sternum in a way that would wake a healthy patient. Moore responded only with a grimace and grunt but remained unconscious. Mitchell did not report his observations or otherwise treat Moore before sheriff’s deputies picked up Moore from the prison in connection with White’s death.

Moore was brought to a hospital soon after. He was comatose and had to be intubated. Medical personnel determined Moore suffered a fractured skull. He never woke up. At least some experts have pinned Moore’s death to the head trauma he received in the prison.

Dr. John Owings testified that Moore sustained his fatal injury at the prison either after he was removed from his cell or right before. Other treating physicians agreed with that assessment. A pre-prison injury, in their view, would have prevented Moore from physically exerting himself while inside his cell.

The district judge granted summary judgment to Defendants on Plaintiffs’ claims against:

• the Individual Defendants—Runner, Hardwell, Curley, Williams, and Mitchell—for deliberate indifference;
• the Individual Defendants for having caused Moore’s death;
• Runner, Hardwell, Curley, and Williams for punitive damages;
• the Corporate Defendants—LaSalle and Richwood—for vicarious liability based on any Individual Defendant violating federal law;
• the Corporate Defendants, plus the City, for liability under the Supreme Court’s decision in Monell and
• the Corporate Defendants for punitive damages. The 5th took action as seen below.


A. Individual Defendants for Deliberate Indifference

The Fourteenth Amendment protects a pretrial detainee’s right not to have his serious medical needs met with deliberate indifference on the part of the confining officials. Plaintiffs needed to raise fact disputes over whether each Individual Defendant (1) was aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and (2) actually drew that inference. Plaintiffs have done so.

Runner personally struck Moore in the head. Runner, Williams, Hardwell, and Curley all witnessed Moore strike his head on the prison’s concrete floor repeatedly. Mitchell, likewise, observed Hardwell, Curley, and Runner getting pretty rough with Moore in the Four-Way. Mitchell also saw a new knot on Moore’s head. All of the Individual Defendants later observed Moore unconscious in the Four-Way, including Mitchell, who couldn’t wake Moore with a sternum rub. And yet, not one of these Defendants sought medical care for Moore.

Likewise, a reasonable jury could find on this record that each Individual Defendant actually inferred that a substantial risk of serious harm existed. Again, each one of them had personal knowledge that Moore had gone unconscious after suffering strikes to his head—not to mention that some evidence suggests that Runner, Williams, and Hardwell all later tried to conceal or downplay the strikes. Indeed, putting Moore at a substantial risk of serious harm may have been the point. As one guard later bragged, Moore had been brought to the cameraless Four-Way so guards could beat him to death and finish him.

B. Excessive force

The district court dismissed all Plaintiffs’ federal and state-law claims against the Individual Defendants for the death of Moore due to excessive force. We think that was mostly premature.

The district court reasoned that all these claims share a common element: medical causation. Simply put, causation isn’t so easy under § 1983.

Moore’s survivors do not have to show that the Individual Defendants caused his death to recover for excessive force. To prevail on an excessive-force claim, a plaintiff need only show (1) an injury (2) which resulted directly and only from a use of force that was clearly excessive, and (3) the excessiveness of which was clearly unreasonable. The injury need not be severe.

In Simpson v. Hines, 903 F.2d 400 (1990), Simpson was arrested and then began smoking cigarettes in the cell. Ten police officers entered the man’s cell to conduct the search and seizure, collectively using physical force against him. The man died as a result. The police argued that they could not be held individually liable absent evidence that each defendant’s actions caused severe injuries. We rejected that argument, reasoning the officers discussed beforehand how to handle the situation and functioned as a unit once inside the man’s cell.

Parallels with Simpson abound in this case. In Simpson the detainee arrived at the stationhouse intoxicated and refused to cooperate with the booking process. So too here. In Simpson a subsequent event (smoking marihuana) compelled police to discuss entering the man’s cell. Here, too, White and Moore’s altercation and its aftermath caused the guards to discuss entering Moore’s cell to secure and extract him in preparation for the Sheriff’s Office’s arrival. Finally, in Simpson the police worked together as a group to use force to subdue the man in his cell to achieve their aim, searching for and seizing contraband. So, too, did the guards here.

On this record, then, Plaintiffs raised a fact dispute for their survivorship claims on whether the Individual Defendants caused Moore’s death through excessive force. That is, with one exception—nurse Mitchell. Plaintiffs do not argue or point to record evidence showing that Mitchell ever used or was otherwise involved with the use of excessive force against Moore. Therefore, the district court did not erroneously grant summary judgment to Mitchell on this issue.

Under Louisiana law and excepting Mitchell, Plaintiffs have raised fact disputes over whether each Individual Defendant’s excessive force was a substantial factor in causing Moore’s death.

Therefore, we AFFIRM the district court so far as it concluded that Mitchell did not cause Moore’s death through excessive force, but otherwise REVERSE on the remaining issues Plaintiffs raise on their claims against the Individual Defendants.

C. Corporate Defendants’ Vicarious Liability

We have, apparently, never squarely decided whether plaintiffs can hold private defendants vicariously liable under § 1983. But the issue just isn’t properly before us. We do not consider arguments raised for the first time on appeal. Therefore, we leave for another day whether plaintiffs can hold private defendants vicariously liable under § 1983.

D. Corporate Defendant and City Direct Liability

Plaintiffs must show (1) an official policy (or custom), (2) that a policy maker can be charged with actual or constructive knowledge, and (3) a constitutional violation whose moving force is that policy (or custom). The district court concluded that Plaintiffs could not raise a fact dispute under this test. We disagree.

D1. Official Policy or Custom

As to policy or custom, plaintiffs argue that a reasonable jury could conclude that it was customary for guards to use the Four-Way to punish detainees out of view of cameras, and for chemical spray to be used to punish restrained prisoners. We agree.

D2. Policymaker had actual or constructive knowledge

Plaintiffs had to raise a fact dispute over whether a policymaker actually or constructively knew that the Four- Way and pepper spray were being used to punish prisoners. A policymaker, we have said, is an official who has the power to make official policy on a particular issue.

The parties dispute whether Hanson had actual or constructive knowledge about guards using the Four-Way and pepper spray to punish prisoners. On this record, though, a reasonable jury could conclude that Hanson had both.

As to actual knowledge, we have explained before that policymakers failing to take corrective action after their subordinates violate the constitution is some evidence that they know about an unconstitutional custom. Here, some record evidence suggests that guards sprayed Moore with pepper spray and beat him in the Four-Way as punishment. And following Moore’s death, Hanson took no disciplinary action against anyone involved.

Constructive knowledge can be attributed to a policymaker on the ground that he would have known of the violations if he had properly exercised its responsibilities, as, for example, where the violations were so persistent and widespread that they were the subject of prolonged public discussion. There were allegations of a wide spread practice of taking prisoners into the Four-Way to teach them a lesson – i.e., to punish prisoners with force.

Still, the City contends that it can’t be liable since its delegation of authority expressly prohibited the use of force to punish an inmate. In other words, that Hanson had no authority to adopt an unconstitutional custom. If a municipality condones an unlawful custom, it cannot avoid liability by claiming that it did not authorize its agents in writing to break the law in the course of their duties.

D3. Constitutional Violation whose Moving Force is that policy or custom

There’s a fact dispute over whether Moore was beaten in the Four-Way and excessively pepper-sprayed—at least by Defendant Foster, if not by all the Individual Defendants. Therefore, we need not address this element further.

In short, Plaintiffs win on most, but not all their contentions about the Corporate Defendants’ and City’s liability. We do not decide if Plaintiffs can or cannot hold the Corporate Defendants vicariously liable for the Individual Defendants’ actions. But Plaintiffs have raised fact disputes on the Corporate Defendants’ and City’s direct liability under Monell. Therefore, we reserve the vicarious-liability question, but REVERSE on Monell liability.

E. Punitive Damages

Private companies may be held liable for punitive damages under § 1983 whether they performed acts for the public benefit or not. To prevail on punitive damages, Plaintiffs must show that the official conduct was motivated by evil intent or demonstrated reckless or callous indifference to a person’s constitutional rights.

A reasonable jury could conclude on this record that Plaintiffs are entitled to punitive damages against Runner, Hardwell, Williams, and Curley. A reasonable jury could also conclude on this record that Plaintiffs are entitled to punitive damages against the Corporate Defendants.

In sum, Plaintiffs’ claims for punitive damages should have survived summary judgment. The Corporate Defendants are not immune, and Plaintiffs have raised fact disputes over whether the Individual Defendants— save for Mitchell—and the Corporate Defendants—through their policymaker, Hanson—acted with reckless or callous indifference. Therefore, we REVERSE the district court’s conclusions otherwise.