Liability When an Escaped Prisoner Injures an Innocent Community Member

What sort of liability arises when an escaped prisoner causes personal injury to someone? It’s certainly not a typical question with which tort law deals. The matter arose in Acadia Parish, where prisoner Jack Stansberry escaped from a hospital, stole a vehicle, and injured plaintiff Nelwin Rider in the process. The trial court granted partial summary judgment in favor of the plaintiff, but the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeal reversed.

The trial court considered summary judgment motions by both the law enforcement defendants and the plaintiff. Summary judgment motions are designed to ensure more efficient use of court resources by granting judgments when there are no genuine issues of material fact. The trial court found the law enforcement defendants solely at fault for plaintiff’s injuries and granted plaintiff’s motion. In reversing this judgment, the appellate court held that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether the prisoner was in the process of escape when the plaintiff was injured. For this reason, the court of appeals said, summary judgment was not proper.

The matter before the trial court was one of negligence. Generally, courts are careful in such cases to lay down specific tests that must be met before assigning liability for injury. While recognizing the duty of prison custodians to act with care in managing prisoners, the appellate court affirmed that this is not an absolute duty intended to forego all potential harm. This duty “is not intended to protect persons from harm inflicted by inmates who have already escaped and who subsequently commit tortious acts in the furtherance of their own pursuits.” This important line, dividing a prisoner’s escape from subsequent activity, was drawn by previous court decisions and was critical to assessing the propriety of the trial court’s summary judgment ruling.

How does a court actually apply this limited duty of care? It looks at whether the injury complained of was an essential part of the escape itself. Emphasizing that this a fact-intensive, case-by-case determination, the appellate court ruled here that it was not beyond dispute whether the prisoner was still in the process of escaping. That is to say, there was a genuine issue of material fact that the trial court should have considered. This rendered the grant of summary judgment to the plaintiff improper.

Prison escapes resulting in civilian injuries are not common. However, if you believe you’ve been the victim of government negligence, attorneys at the Berniard Law Firm are ready to help resolve your case.