Louisiana Jailers Owe a Higher Duty of Care to Intoxicated Prisoners

According to Louisiana state courts, jailers may be liable for negligence if an intoxicated prisoner is injured while in custody. In fact, these courts have repeatedly cited the principle that the police owe a higher degree of care to an intoxicated person than to an unimpaired person.

In the 1980 case of Burns v. Town of Leesville, the Third Circuit rejected Billy Burns’ claim that the Leesville City Jail, as well as several other parties, were negligent in placing him in the top bunk of a prison bed after arresting him for disturbing the peace by being drunk. During the course of his time locked up, Burns rolled or fell off the top bunk and struck his back on a metal railing before landing on the floor of his cell. According to Burns and other prisoners, he called out for medical assistance several times but his jailers ignored his requests. Burns was released from jail the next morning. After his release, he sought medical treatment and was hospitalized for several days due to a contusion and abrasion of his back with an acute lumbar sprain.

The Court of Appeals, stating that voluntary intoxication does not absolve a person of his own negligent acts, found that Burns was responsible for his own injuries which were due to his attempt to get down from the top bunk in an unsafe manner. Because of this, the court of appeals found for the jailers.

Though the Burns case revolved around intoxication due to alcohol, Louisiana state law generally defines “intoxication” more broadly. For example, Louisiana DWI law states that operating a vehicle under the influence of a “controlled dangerous substance” such as heroin or marijuana amounts to “operating a vehicle while intoxicated.” As a result, police officers must take extra precautions when confronted with an intoxicated person, impaired by drugs, alcohol, or both, and must reasonably protect that prisoner from harm. Indeed, in Barlow v. City of New Orleans, the Louisiana Supreme Court likened an intoxicated person to a “child of tender years” in determining what level of care is appropriate.

In Barlow, police officers locked the drunk plaintiff in the back of a police car, at which point he lit a match that set the back compartment of the car on fire and caused him to be severely burned. In addition, although the court in Barlow emphasized that a person in custody is owed a duty of care to protect him “within reasonable limits from injury not attributable to his own willful act,” it affirmed the lower court’s damages award of $9100. Despite the fact that the court assumed Barlow started the fire by his own act of lighting a match, it focused on the fact that the police officers had left him unattended in the locked patrol car for an excessive amount of time—at least long enough for Barlow to light the match, set the fire, and be burned so extensively that he was hospitalized for 42 days to treat his injuries.

To summarize, Louisiana state law requires police officers and jailers to exercise a higher degree of care to intoxicated people in custody. They can be held liable for negligence if they fail to provide this degree of care and the prisoner gets injured. This is true whether or not the injuries were caused solely by the acts of the prisoner, as Barlow shows. Additionally, the term “intoxicated” is not restricted to drunkenness or alcohol, but applies more broadly to a prisoner with a compromised physical or mental state due to alcohol, drugs, or both.


If you were injured while in police custody and think you may have a case, call the Berniard Law Firm and an attorney will help try to get you the ruling you deserve.

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