CHICAGO — A federal appeals panel has reversed a judge’s decision to assign liability to a Kane County prison guard involved in a detainee's escape and assault in a west suburban hospital.
Then-U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve had ruled Correctional Officer Shawn Loomis was liable for increasing the danger to the public as the result of an incident at Delnor Hospital in Geneva. Loomis was on duty with a pretrial detainee who had been transferred to the hospital after an apparent suicide attempt. Though the guards were instructed to keep the detainee shackled, Loomis freed the man after he said he needed to use the bathroom.
The detainee grabbed Loomis’ gun and escaped. As Loomis hid, the detainee took nurses hostage and assaulted two of them before a SWAT team arrived and killed him. Two employees who were frightened during the incident, but not physically harmed, sued Loomis, the county, the hospital and its private security firm. Loomis moved to dismiss the complaint, asserting he had qualified immunity privilege. When St. Eve denied that motion, Loomis appealed to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
St. Eve has since been appointed as one of the judges on that appeals court, though she did not serve on the panel hearing the appeal.
Seventh Circuit Judge Frank Easterbook wrote the panel’s opinion issued Sept. 18; Circuit Judges Michael Kanne and Michael Brennan concurred.
According to the panel, which suggested Loomis is “a feckless coward,” St. Eve determined Loomis’ negligence was grounds for a liability claim, rejecting his immunity defense. However, Easterbrook wrote, that reasoning “starts and ends at a high level of generality.”
Lomis based his argument on a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, and its holding that a government employee isn’t required to protect the public from a private predator. The panel said St. Eve invoked the “state-created danger exception” to DeShaney to improperly infer “a constitutional rule prohibiting any act, by any public official, that increases private danger.”
The panel said although it’s not necessary for a case to perfectly align with the events of an established precedent, it is important to arrive at “an appropriate level of generality,” while asserting St. Eve’s opinion failed to reach that benchmark.
“Other litigants have argued that the Constitution requires guards to prevent escapes, and every appellate court that has considered the possibility has rejected it as incompatible with DeShaney,” Easterbrook wrote. “It is not possible to say that a constitutional obligation to keep a prisoner under control has been ‘clearly established’ when every appellate court that has addressed the question has held that the proposed obligation does not exist.”
Although the hospital workers alleged Loomis was incompetent, the panel explained the 14th Amendment Due Process Clause doesn’t generally condemn official negligence. Further, Easterbrook explained, even the law of torts doesn’t expose someone acting negligently to liability for exposure to threatening conduct that produces emotional distress.
The panel also said that while there may be a time to evaluate whether DeShaney remains compatible with other cases in which the state disabled or undermined the notion of self-help or private assistance sources, it isn’t appropriate for this case because the outcome wouldn’t turn on that distinction.
“For now,” Easterbrook wrote, “it is enough to say that even if Loomis is civilly and criminally liable as a matter of Illinois law, he is entitled to qualified immunity from a claim based on the federal Constitution, so the district court’s decision is reversed.”