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Court News Ohio

Court of Claims: Prison at Fault For Injuries of 80-Year-Old Inmate Who Fell from Bunk

Roy Buchanan v. Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Case No. 2013-00671

The state prison system is liable for the injuries an 80-year-old inmate suffered when he fell out of the top bunk of a bunk bed in the Hocking Correctional Facility, an Ohio Court of Claims magistrate ruled.

The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has 14 days to appeal the Feb. 5 ruling by Magistrate Robert Van Schoyck that the prison should have clearly known about the mental and physical limitations of octogenarian inmate Roy Buchanan and the risks of assigning him to a top bunk. Buchanan’s complaint filed in the Court of Claims was split into two matters, one determining the liability of the department, and the other the extent of his damages. Van Schoyck only ruled on liability at this time.

In his complaint, Buchanan, now 81, said in December 2012 he lost his balance and fell from the top bunk onto the concrete floor of the dorm where he and other inmates lived. Hocking Correctional is labeled as the state prison system’s facility for aging inmates, and inmates are assigned lower or top bunks by the prison staff. Buchanan argued that inmates with physical or mental restrictions should be assigned to a low bunk, or an upper bunk with rails. He said his bunk had no side rails and no attempt was made to affix rails to his bunk.

Van Schoyck noted that Buchanan said the medical staff several years earlier denied his request to restrict him to a low bunk, but the record in the case failed to substantiate the claim. No one who actually saw Buchanan fall testified, but three inmates in the same dorm in upper bunks said that it is customary for them to step on their metal footlockers, then step on a foot peg welded onto the frame of the bed, and pull themselves up the rest of the way into bed.

Inmate Robert Turner testified that he had lived in the same dorm as Buchanan for at least a year and observed him having trouble getting in and out of the upper bunk. “According to Turner, someone hollered out ‘Roy just fell, man down,’ and then he looked over and saw inmates crowding around (Buchanan’s) bed,” the opinion stated.

Toni Lee Basse, assistant healthcare administrator for the Southeastern Correctional Complex, which oversees Hocking Correctional, testified that the system uses a guideline known as Protocol B-19 for evaluating and ordering medical restrictions for inmates. She confirmed that restrictions ordered for Buchanan before the accident included no lifting of an item of more than 10 pounds, no shoveling, buffing or using ladders, or doing any job that required reading or writing. He was granted an elevator pass to move among the facility’s three floors and had been diagnosed with possible early dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

In April 2011 Buchanan’s B-19 included the notation “top bunk OK,” but subsequent guides did not discuss the bunk. The magistrate cited the B-19 Protocol guidelines regarding physical impairments of concern, and one of those being of advanced age, which was set at 70 years old. Restrictions for the impaired include assignment to low bunks.

“The magistrate finds that at the time of the accident, plaintiff suffered from infirmity associated with his advanced age, back problems, and a hernia, his ability to climb in and out of an upper bunk was substantially limited, and indeed his physical limitations caused him to fall. The magistrate further finds that plaintiff, who clearly exhibited some memory loss and confusion at trial, has a form of dementia that predates the accident,” the opinion stated.

The department argued the April 2011 “top bunk OK” note demonstrated it was not hazardous for Buchanan to use the upper bunk, but Van Schoyck ruled he could not determine who wrote the note, or when, and what significance it had. The department also argued some of the fault should be placed on Buchanan for not requesting the low bunk restriction, but the magistrate said it is clearly the responsibility for the department to follow its protocol. He stated that staff examining Buchanan could see he qualified for the low bunk restrictions, especially since they ordered other physical restrictions for him including not climbing ladders.

He wrote that while in general inmates have a duty to act with their own safety in mind, the department is obligated to protect inmates from foreseeable risks, and in this case, the evidence indicated the department should have known it was risky to put Buchanan in an upper bunk.

The Court of Claims is given original jurisdiction to hear and determine all civil actions filed against the state of Ohio and its agencies.

To access information on other cases visit the Court of Claims website.

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