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Miller v. Neathery

April 11, 1995




Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 90 C 2223--Paul V. Gadola, Judge.

Before POSNER, Chief Judge, and ESCHBACH and RIPPLE, Circuit Judges.

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge.



Two correctional officers appeal from a jury verdict finding that they violated inmate Melvin Miller's Eighth Amendment Right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. We hold that the jury instructions on deliberate indifference inadequately informed the jury that the officers could not be liable unless they actually knew of and disregarded an excessive risk to Mr. Miller's safety. See Farmer v. Brennan, 114 S. Ct. 1970, 1979 (1994). Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand the case for a new trial.


A. Facts

Melvin Miller was an inmate assigned to cell 3H09 of the segregation unit at Stateville Correctional Center. The 3H wing consisted of a long corridor with odd-numbered cells on one side and even-numbered cells on the other. Cells 3H01 and 3H02 were closest to the security door that opened onto the wing. Between the cells and the security door were the showers used by prisoners. Beyond the security door was a "day room" that contained a series of storage closets. The security door between the 3H wing and the day room, as well as the doors in the day room itself, were electronically controlled by a correctional officer who sat in an adjacent control room. A large window between the control room and the day room allowed this officer to monitor both the day room and the 3H wing.

At approximately 2:00 p.m. on March 31, 1990, Mr. Miller was sitting in his cell. Correctional officer Norman Neathery was on duty in the control room. Officer Neathery allowed inmate William Adkins, who had been assigned to clean the showers, to leave the 3H wing and to return with cleaning supplies. Officer Neathery observed Adkins hook a hose up to a faucet in the day room and attach a bottle of cleanser to the hose. Officer Neathery then opened the door to the 3H wing and allowed Adkins to enter with the hose and cleanser. Adkins ambled down the corridor past the showers until he reached Miller's cell. He then began to douse Miller with the spray from the hose. Apparently, Adkins was retaliating because Miller had spat upon him earlier that week. Adkins continued to spray Miller until Terrence Terrell, a gallery officer assigned to the 3H wing, ordered him to stop. Mr. Miller complained that his eyes burned. He was taken to the prison infirmary for treatment. Mr. Miller subsequently filed a sec. 1983 claim against Officers Neathery and Terrell. Upon his subsequent death, from causes not related to the incident before us, his mother continued the litigation as administrator of her son's estate.

B. Earlier Proceedings

At trial, Ms. Miller's theory of the case was that Officers Neathery and Terrell stood idly by and watched as inmate Adkins sprayed Miller with chemicals for several minutes. With respect to Officer Terrell, the jury heard conflicting testimony concerning whether he had been present when Adkins initially arrived with the hose and had followed Adkins' instructions to leave the 3H wing, or whether he was in the control room with Neathery. *fn1 Similarly, witnesses disputed whether Terrell watched Adkins spray Miller for anywhere from five or six to fifteen minutes, or whether he ordered the spraying stopped as soon as he arrived on the scene. Officer Terrell testified that he could not remember Miller and that he had only vague memories of the spraying incident. He also stated, however, that he would never have allowed Adkins to assault Miller.

With respect to Officer Neathery, there was conflicting testimony concerning whether he should have evaluated Adkins' behavior in arriving to clean the showers at 2:00 p.m. as out-of-the-ordinary. In addition, Neathery testified that, as soon as he saw Adkins begin to spray Miller, he called Terrell and told him to investigate it. Officer Neathery admitted that he watched the entire spraying incident from the control room and surmised that the spraying continued for up to five minutes. Both Neathery and Captain Robert Griffin, who was the supervisor in charge of the 3H wing on the day of the incident, testified that it was against prison regulations for the control officer to leave the control room.

The jury returned a verdict against the defendants for $10,000 in compensatory damages, and assessed an additional $6,000 in punitive damages against Neathery and $14,000 against Terrell. Following the verdict, the officers moved for judgment as a matter of law, a new trial, or remittitur. The district court denied their motion, and they filed this appeal.

We need address only the defendants' contention that the case was submitted to the jury under erroneous instructions. Ms. Miller proposed a jury instruction on deliberate indifference based on our decision in Benson v. Cady, 761 F.2d 335 (7th Cir. 1985). *fn2 The officers objected to this instruction on the ground that it failed to define the term "recklessly," and offered two alternative instructions. *fn3 The court overruled the officers' objection and ultimately gave Ms. Miller's proposed instruction to the ...

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