Supreme Court ruling limits counties’ liability
Counties are not liable for acts committed by deputy sheriffs, even when the hiring process was suspect, according to a new U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The decision, which overturns a jury verdict that had awarded a woman more than $700,000 in actual damages, makes it more difficult for plaintiffs seeking damages for violations of their federal rights to hold local governments liable because of inadequate employee background screening.
In Commissioners of Bryan County, Okla. v. Brown, the court held that government agencies are not automatically liable for their employees’ actions and emphasized that a plaintiff must show the hiring decision reflects “deliberate indifference” or a “conscious disregard” of a high risk that the employee would cause the particular injury suffered.
“Municipalities can’t be held liable unless it was obvious that the hired individual would inflict the particular injury alleged,” says Redding, Calif., Attorney Wayne Maire, who represented the county in the matter.
The case arose when Bryan County sheriff’s deputies stopped a woman and her husband after observing the couple turn to avoid a checkpoint. After the woman did not exit the car as ordered, one of the reserve deputies grabbed her arm, pulled her out of the vehicle and threw her to the ground.
The woman suffered severe knee injuries and sued the county for damages, alleging that the deputy used excessive force and that the sheriff had failed to adequately review the deputy’s background before hiring him. The deputy, a relative of the sheriff, was hired despite a record of misdemeanors, including various driving-related infractions, assault and battery, resisting arrest and public drunkenness.
The sheriff testified at trial that he obtained the deputy’s driving history and record of misdemeanors but did not review either closely.
“Congress did not intend municipalities to be held liable unless deliberate action attributable to the municipality directly caused a deprivation of federal rights,” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the majority opinion.