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Prisoner Who Fell from Top Bunk Wins Appeal, Court Reexamines Discretionary Immunity Precedent

The Tenth District Court of Appeals has ruled that the Court of Claims should not have granted summary judgment to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in a case involving a prisoner suing for damages he claims he sustained when he fell from his bed. The appeals court reexamined its own precedent on the application of “discretionary immunity.”

Inmate Ron Foster claims ODRC was negligent because he was forced to use the top bunk at the Hocking Correctional Facility despite having informed prison employees that a doctor had advised against it due to health problems.

Foster said a prison medical doctor issued a lower-bunk restriction for Foster for approximately two weeks, but did not renew the restriction after that time. Foster claimed that ODRC owed him a “duty of care” and that it “breached that duty, and that, as a result, he suffered injuries, including a total loss of use of his right arm” when he fell from the top bunker shortly after the restriction was lifted.

ODRC denied the allegations, and the Court of Claims granted a motion for summary judgment by the department dismissing the case in part on the basis that the department was entitled to discretionary immunity. Discretionary immunity is a statutory provision that grants limited immunity from liability to state entities in certain instances when they are exercising discretion in their actions. Foster appealed to the Tenth District, claiming among other issues that the Court of Claims erred in granting ODRC discretionary liability in this case.

Judge Julia L. Dorrian wrote the appeals court’s unanimous decision reversing the Court of Claims and clarifying the Tenth District’s earlier precedent on discretionary liability.

The Court of Claims relied on a 2011 decision of the Tenth District, Brown v. Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., in which the appeals court found that ODRC was entitled to discretionary liability in very similar circumstances to this case. “We now find the analysis in Brown to be problematic,” Judge Dorian wrote.

In Brown, the Tenth District affirmed a Court of Claims decision that granted discretionary immunity for claims an inmate made against ODRC after he fell from an upper bunk. The appeals court concluded that “the decision of prison medical personnel to allow an inmate’s bunk restriction to lapse without renewal is one that is characterized by the exercise of a high degree of discretion and one that necessarily involves a substantial amount of official judgment.”

In re-examining this reasoning, Judge Dorrian wrote: “Many state employees are called upon to exercise a high degree of discretion while working. Were we to find that discretionary immunity applies every time a state employee exercises discretion in performing his or her job, we would be vastly expanding the scope of the discretionary immunity doctrine while simultaneously limiting the scope of the state’s waiver of sovereign immunity from liability as established by the Court the Claims Act. Accordingly, application of the discretionary immunity doctrine requires more than a finding that a state employee made a decision that required the exercise of a high degree of discretion – it requires a finding of the exercise of a high degree of official judgment or discretion as to an executive or planning function involving the making of a basic policy decision.”

Judge Dorrian added: “We specifically reject the premise that a bright-line rule exits that medical decisions made by a medical professional in a state prison facility fall within the scope of discretionary immunity simply because a medical professional exercised a high degree of professional judgment in making a discretionary medical decision.”

The court of appeals also rejected a finding by the Court of Claims that Foster’s claims amounted to a medical malpractice suit and that his attorneys had failed to meet certain statutory requirements of such suits.

Judge Dorrian concluded: “We have determined that neither the doctrine of discretionary immunity nor appellant’s failure to comply with procedural requirements required of medical malpractice claims justified entry of summary judgment in this case. The trial court therefore erred in entering summary judgment to ODRC… the question of whether genuine issues of material fact exist as to a claim of ordinary negligence precluding judgment in ODRC’s favor as a matter of law have not yet been presented, or determined by, the [Court of Claims.]

Judges William A. Klatt and John A. Connor concurred in the March 12 opinion. The court reversed the summary judgment entered by the Court of Claims and remanded the case back to the court for further proceedings.

Foster v. Dept. of Rehab. & Corr., 2013-Ohio-912
Appeal From: Court of Claims
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed and Remanded
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: March 12, 2013

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