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Pete v. State, Department of Corrections

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

May 9, 2018



          Charles Brandt Brandt & Sherman, L.L.P. COUNSEL FOR: Plaintiff/Appellee - Alvin Pete

          Patrick B. McIntire Oats & Marino COUNSEL FOR: Defendant/Appellant - Ronald Theriot, Sheriff

          Court composed of Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, Chief Judge, Phyllis M. Keaty, and D. Kent Savoie, Judges.


         Plaintiff, Alvin Pete, filed suit against Ronald J. Theriot, in his official capacity as the sheriff of St. Martin Parish (Sheriff), seeking damages for an injury he sustained to his left eye while incarcerated in the St. Martin Parish Jail, Breaux Bridge Substation 2 (jail). The trial court found in favor of Mr. Pete, awarding him $50, 000.00 in general damages. Both parties appealed. In this opinion, we have consolidated the two appeals, 17-1131 and 17-1132. Reviewing the record, we find that the trial court erred in failing to apportion comparative fault and that the general damages award was abusively low. Accordingly, we amend the judgment to correct these errors and affirm the judgment as amended.



         The Sheriff entreats us to consider the following issues:

(1) To the extent that the Judgment casts the Sheriff in liability for damages, the trial court erred by finding the Sheriff at fault for Plaintiff's injury, including through a failure to train, by allowing aggregate within the trustee yard, or by failure to supervise the trustees;
(2) To the extent that the Judgment casts the Sheriff in liability for damages, the trial court erred in failing to apportion fault to the trustees who were throwing the rocks; and
(3) The trial court erred in overruling the Sheriff's exception of prematurity for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and in failing to reconsider that ruling at trial when it was clear that the Plaintiff's testimony had changed.

         Mr. Pete asks this court to consider if the trial court committed error in awarding only $50, 000.00 to Alvin Pete for loss of his eyesight in his left eye.



         On February 18, 2013, Mr. Pete was an inmate at the jail located in St. Martinville, Louisiana. While working in the trustee yard, Mr. Pete was struck in the left eye with a rock thrown by another inmate, Freddie Handy. After evaluation of his injuries at the jail's medical facility, Mr. Pete was transferred to University Medical Center in Lafayette, Louisiana, for treatment. Once there, it was determined that the injury required specialized treatment at the Louisiana State University Eye Clinic. On the evening of February 18, 2013, doctors performed an eight-hour surgery that resulted in Mr. Pete losing sight and use of his left eye. Mr. Pete returned to the jail and, after a short convalescence, he was transferred to Hunt Correctional Center (Hunt) to serve out the remainder of his sentence.

         Mr. Pete filed his petition for damages against the Sheriff, among other defendants, on February 11, 2014.[1] Therein he alleged negligence on the part of the Sheriff, "in the following, non-exclusive particulars:"

1. failure "to properly and adequately supervise the inmates . . . so as to avoid risk of injury encountered;"
2. failure "to maintain the trustee yard . . . in a reasonably safe condition, including having dangerous instrumentalities present in the yard;"
3. failure "to have in place adequate policies to protect the physical safety and welfare of inmates;"
4. failure "to adequately enforce policies and procedures designed to protect the physical safety and welfare of inmates; and"
5. failure "to have sufficient personnel on hand to properly and adequately supervise the inmates while in the trustee yard."

         In response, the Sheriff filed a dilatory exception of prematurity, alleging that Mr. Pete's claims were premature because he had not exhausted the available administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, La.R.S. 15:1181-1191. Mr. Pete opposed the exception, arguing that any failure to use the administrative remedy available was due to the Sheriff's failure to comply with his office's policy.

         The testimony at the hearing on the exception revealed that Mr. Pete was booked into the jail on May 1, 2012, at which time he received a copy of the St. Martin Parish Correctional Center Inmate Handbook (handbook). The handbook contained the policies and administrative remedy procedures (ARP) at issue herein. Specifically, the handbook allowed thirty days in which to file an ARP request, unless time was extended by "extenuating circumstances." While suggesting a particular form for filing grievances, the handbook did not include an ARP request form. Major Robley Picard, who served as the jail's warden at the time of Mr. Pete's injury, testified that the appropriate forms were available "on a desktop in the conference room" to which the trustees had access, but were not in an identifiable area.

         Upon completion of an ARP request, the policy allowed for any employee on duty to accept the form, thus beginning the process for a complaint. The employee receiving the ARP request was then required to deliver the form to the warden's inbox, after which the warden had fifteen days to respond. Major Picard further testified that there existed no policy "where whomever received [the request] was responsible for documenting it anywhere like [in] a log book." He also did not have a log to document receipt of requests; rather, he would just answer the request and put it in the inmate's file.

         Mr. Pete testified that he was aware of the ARP, which he followed. He further testified that after asking for an ARP request form and being told those forms were not available, he submitted a handwritten request approximately four days after his release from the hospital. Mr. Pete further explained that he wrote multiple copies of his request because he did not have access to a copy machine. He gave the original to Deputy Ernest Singleton, kept a copy for himself, and sent the other copies to attorneys in an effort to obtain representation. Major Picard testified, however, that, while he was familiar with Deputy Singleton who was employed during this period and was capable of accepting requests, he himself did not receive Mr. Pete's original ARP request. Deputy Singleton was not called to testify.

         After taking the matter under advisement, the trial court denied the exception finding that the Sheriff presented no evidence to refute Mr. Pete's assertion that he followed the ARP set forth in the handbook. The trial court reasoned:

Simply because the Warden did not receive Mr. Pete's grievance, does not prove that Plaintiff did not file the grievance. Additionally, the court found Plaintiff's testimony credible and corroborated by testimony concerning "Sergeant Singleton" by Plaintiff and the Warden. Notwithstanding the written policy which Plaintiff admits he received, the policy provides no method of tracking receipt of complaint, or response to a complaint. Although the jail utilized an employee grievance form during their investigation of the incident, even it was not signed by the Plaintiff. As a result of the above, the mover could not carry the burden of his exception of prematurity and thus his Dilatory Exception of Prematurity is DENIED.

         At the bench trial on the merits, the unrefuted testimony established that on the morning of February 18, 2013, Mr. Pete's left eye was struck by a limestone rock thrown by Mr. Handy, while Mr. Pete was walking on a pathway in the trustee yard. The aerial view exhibits admitted into evidence depicted the trustee yard as a general area of approximately one acre that housed the trustees, which included three dormitories and a conference center used by the administration. The pathway ...

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