A court ruling in the case of a man whose beating by jailers was caught on video has county leaders across Oklahoma on edge.
“It means more lawsuits, is what it means,” Ray Vaughn, chairman of the Oklahoma County Board of Commissioners, said Monday.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court said the state Constitution gives jail detainees who allege abuse the ability to sue counties and other governmental entities.
Until now, counties have had immunity under state law “from liability arising out of the operation of prison facilities,” the Supreme Court said in its ruling.
The provision forced people who claimed they had been mistreated in jail to sue for civil rights violations in federal court. Vaughn said the threshold to have a claim accepted on the federal level is more stringent than in state court.
The case arose after Daniel Bosh, a Cherokee County man, was arrested in May 2011 by a state trooper for failing to pay court costs. The trooper took Bosh to the jail in Tahlequah.
According to Bosh's federal lawsuit, Bosh exchanged words with jailer Gordon Chronister after Bosh asked Chronister if he would loosen his handcuffs.
Chronister slammed Bosh's head into the booking desk, then put Bosh's head underneath his arm and slammed Bosh into the floor, in a move described in the lawsuit as similar to those used in mixed-martial arts fights.
A video camera recorded the scene before jailers moved Bosh into two other rooms, where the assault continued, the lawsuit says.
It says jailers denied Bosh medical care for two days before he was hospitalized with spinal injuries.
The lawsuit quotes an unnamed inmate who described other instances of violence at the Cherokee County Detention Center.
Jailers constantly watched mixed-martial arts fights on a computer in the booking area, the witness said.
Vaughn said county officials want justice to be served but “we know there are times when frivolous lawsuits are brought.”
Defense costs fall to local authorities and, ultimately, to the taxpayers, he said.
And liability limits that protect taxpayers against windfall judgments won't apply, Vaughn said.
J. Spencer Bryan, a Tulsa lawyer whose firm does civil rights work, said Bosh came to the law firm with his story. Bryan used the Oklahoma Open Records Act to get the video and, “It checked out.”
After Bryan's firm filed suit against the Cherokee County Governmental Building Authority, which operates the jail, the federal court agreed to ask for clarification of state law, Bryan said. Bosh's case will continue in federal court, he said.
“I think it's a substantial victory for the people of Oklahoma to ensure that counties are taking the proper and necessary steps to train and supervise employees,” Bryan said.
“If a county doesn't want to expose itself to a judgment, train your employees,” he said. “Do the right thing, hire the right employees, supervise them.”
Larry Derryberry, counsel to the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma and their insurance group, said counties train their personnel and, “They do know right from wrong.”
Derryberry, a former state attorney general, said the ruling gives governments “some pause to reflect on the import of this decision.”
Long-standing practice has protected detainees' rights while keeping costs in check, said Derryberry and Gayle Ward, the association's executive director.
The Supreme Court's ruling earlier this month threatens to shift the balance away from holding the line on costs, they said.
“It gets passed on to the taxpayers,” Ward said.