SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A Ninth Circuit panel on Tuesday upheld a lower court finding that California and San Quentin state prison officials must face liability for a Covid outbreak in 2020 that infected thousands of prisoners and killed 29 people.
The defendants had appealed to the Ninth Circuit in May after Senior U.S. District Judge William Orrick III denied qualified immunity requests by the defendants.
The case concerns a prison transfer in 2020. That year, 122 prisoners with high-risk medical conditions were transferred from the California Institution for Men, a male-only state prison in the Southern California city of Chino, to San Quentin, a 171-year-old prison over 400 miles north.
The transfer was disastrous, with over 2,000 people infected within weeks. By the time it was over, 28 inmates and one prison official died.
Most of the men being moved from the California Institution for Men had not been tested for Covid for weeks, and many were not screened properly before being loaded into buses for San Quentin.
In the aftermath, the widow of Michael Hampton, who died during the outbreak, filed a lawsuit claiming her husband’s constitutional rights were violated when prison officials exposed him to Covid.
The defendants argued they were shielded by qualified immunity and the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP), a law passed in 2005 that aimed to shield vaccine manufacturers from liability during public health crises. Orrick denied the request, and the defendants appealed.
On Tuesday, a three-judge Ninth Circuit panel consisting of U.S. Circuit Judges Michelle Friedland, a Barack Obama appointee, Mark Bennett, a Donald Trump appointee, and Richard Bennett, a George W. Bush appointee, affirmed Orrick’s decision on Tuesday.
“We affirm the district court’s conclusion that the officials are not entitled to immunity under federal law for the claimed violations of her husband’s rights, and we lack jurisdiction to consider whether the officials are entitled to immunity under state law,” Friedland wrote for the panel.
The panel concluded that defendants were not shielded by the PREP Act because they failed to administer a “covered countermeasure," such as vaccines, medication, devices, or other measures used to prevent, diagnose, or treat a public health emergency or a security threat.
In July 2022, Orrick ruled that the PREP Act “may confer immunity for the administration of countermeasures within a prison context, but it does not serve to convert all prison operations into countermeasure programs or locations such that any Covid-related conduct or decisions made within that context are immune.”
The plaintiff's Eighth Amendment claims can proceed, the panel ruled, because she “adequately alleged that defendants acted with deliberate indifference to the health and safety of San Quentin inmates, including Hampton.”
“All had been briefed on the dangers of Covid-19, the highly transmissible nature of the disease, and the necessity of taking precautions (such as social distancing, mask-wearing, and testing) to prevent its spread,” Friedland wrote. “Defendants were also aware that containing an outbreak at San Quentin would be particularly difficult due to its tight quarters, antiquated design, and poor ventilation.”
The right at issue, according to the panel, is the right to be free from exposure to a serious disease. This right was established “since at least 1993,” when the Supreme Court decided Helling v. McKinney.
In Helling, it was established that an inmate can sue to prove that their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment has been violated if prison officials act with deliberate indifference.
“All reasonable prison officials would have been on notice in 2020 that they could be held liable for exposing inmates to a serious disease, including a serious communicable disease,” Friedland wrote.
The defendants argued that they had no good options to shield prisoners from exposure, and that any decision they made could endanger inmates.
“Defendants’ argument fails because it rests on a premise contrary to the complaint’s allegations. Plaintiff does not challenge defendants’ decision to transfer inmates out of CIM. Rather, plaintiff challenges decisions that defendants made in carrying out the transfer that increased the risk to San Quentin inmates without decreasing the risk to the transferred inmates,” Friedland wrote.
The case will now proceed in Orrick’s court.
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