November 10, 2011
Ninth Circuit: No Civil Rights Claim for Death at Group Home
A divided three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled earlier this week in Campbell v. State of Washington Dep't of Soc. and Health Serv. that the mother of a 33-year-old developmentally disabled adult who drowned while in a state-operated assisted-living home did not present a genuine issue of material fact as to her civil rights claim against home employees, because she did not proffer evidence that the state owned her daughter an affirmative duty of care.
The case arose out of Justine Booth's drowning in a bathtub while in the care of the Washington State Operated Living Alternative program, or SOLA. Justine drowned after SOLA employees ordered her to take a bath, but failed to monitor her.
The majority, citing DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep't of Soc. Serv. throughout, concluded that Campbell, Justine's mom, did not present a genuine issue of material fact as to her 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 claim, because she did not proffer evidence that the state owned Justine an affirmative duty of care. The majority said that Justine had no special relationship with SOLA, because her admission into the program was voluntary. Op. at 20033, quoting DeShaney (the "special relationship exception" is created when "the State takes a person into its custody and holds him there against his will") (emphasis added). And the majority wrote that the SOLA employees did not create the danger, because "none of them acted affirmatively to place Justine in the way of danger they had created." Op. at 20041. The majority noted that taking a long bath was one of Justine's favorite activities.
Judge Fletcher dissented, arguing that Campbell raised at least triable allegations on the special relationship and the creation of danger. As to the special relationship, Judge Fletcher argued that the right question is whether at the time of the events in question the individual was free to leave state custody. As to creation of danger, Judge Fletcher argued that the state only has to increase the plaintiff's risks to dangers already present. Under these standards, Campbell alleged sufficient facts to move to trial.
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