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Turner v. Miller

August 21, 2002


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 99 C 3178--William J. Hibbler, Judge.

Before Posner, Kanne, and Williams, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kanne, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED MAY 22, 2002

Roland Turner sued several State of Illinois prison officials to recover for injuries he allegedly sustained when he was shocked by exposed electrical wires in the showers at Stateville Correctional Center. In Count I, Turner alleged that the defendants violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by exposing him to unsafe conditions of confinement. In Count II, he alleged that the defendants were negligent under state law. After a four-day trial, a jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants.

I. Background

Turner, a prisoner at Stateville Correctional Center, alleges that on October 25, 1997, he was shocked when he came into contact with exposed wires dangling from a missing light fixture in the showers. Turner claims that when he raised his arm to allow another inmate to step in front of him to use a showerhead, his wrist touched the exposed wires and he was shocked. According to Turner, he then fell to the ground, resulting in injuries to his hands, back, and head.

At trial, Turner and several inmates testified on Turner's behalf. Turner explained that because so few showerheads were working, he shared a showerhead with fellow inmate Flaviano DeLaola. Turner alleged that after he rinsed off, he stepped back to allow DeLaola to use the showerhead. At this point, Turner claimed that he raised his arm, and the next thing he remembered was being awakened with smelling salts. However, DeLaola testified at trial that he was a couple of showerheads away from Turner at the time of the incident, and thus, did not share the showerhead with Turner. Further, although several inmates claimed to have heard Turner yell out and seen him fall to the floor, no one actually saw Turner's arm hit any exposed wires.

Turner and the inmates provided conflicting testimony about the time frame during which the exposed wires in the showers existed and about the length of the exposed wires. One inmate testified that the wires had been hanging since 1994, while another inmate testified that the first time he saw the wires was on the day that Turner was shocked. Further, while Turner testified that the wires dangled between twelve and thirteen inches, another inmate specifically testified that two exposed wires were only seven and ten inches long respectively, and yet another inmate testified that the wires were two feet long. Turner and all the inmates admitted that they had never filed a written grievance about the exposed wires.

At trial, the defendants denied all allegations against them and asserted sovereign immunity as an affirmative defense to Turner's negligence claim. Further, each defendant testified that he had no knowledge about the exposed wires in the showers and that he had never seen any wires dangling in the showers. Defendant Louis Miller, assistant Chief Inspector, testified that his responsibilities did not include inspecting the showers, and therefore, he would not have had an opportunity to notice any exposed wires. Rather, Miller explained that he was alerted to necessary repair work through work orders submitted to the engineering office, and no work order for exposed wires in the showers was ever submitted. Defendant Lieutenant Paul Morgan testified that on ninety-five percent of the days that he worked, he inspected the showers for contraband and that he had never seen any exposed wires in the showers nor had any inmate or guard ever told him that there were exposed wires in the showers. Defendant Sergeant Jerome Nickerson testified that he walked through the showers once every two or three weeks to check for cleanliness and that he never saw any exposed wires. Additionally, Nickerson testified that no inmate ever reported exposed wires to him.

The prison medical technician, John Adams, also testified on behalf of the defendants. Adams explained that when he arrived at the showers, he used an ammonia inhalant to revive Turner. Adams stated that although someone who was unconscious would normally be groggy upon revival, Turner "snapped around" immediately after being given the ammonia inhalant. Further, Adams testified that the inmates in the shower were disinterested in what was happening with Turner. Adams explained that this behavior was unusual because normally when a fellow inmate was injured, the other inmates were very interested in seeing that the injured inmate received medical attention immediately. Adams also explained that Turner had no visible wounds or injuries. Dr. Smith, the Stateville medical director who subsequently treated Turner, also testified that if Turner had lost consciousness and fallen, he would have had bruising as well as swelling. However, according to Dr. Smith, Turner had no such injuries.

The jury returned a verdict on the negligence count in favor of the defendants, and thereafter the district court entered judgment in favor of the defendants and against Turner. Subsequently, Turner filed post-trial motions pursuant to Rules 50 and 59, arguing that reversal was warranted because the verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence or, alternatively, that a new trial was warranted due to a lack of evidence, errors in the jury instructions, and an incomplete impeachment of him by defense counsel. The district court denied Turner's posttrial motions, and Turner now appeals.

II. Analysis

We review the district court's denial of Turner's motion for judgment as a matter of law de novo, limiting our inquiry "to whether the evidence presented, combined with all reasonable inferences permissibly drawn therefrom, is sufficient to support the verdict when viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is directed." Goodwin v. MTD Prods., Inc., 232 F.3d 600, 60506 (7th Cir. 2000) (quotations omitted). We reverse only if we conclude that no rational juror could have found for the prevailing party. See id. at 606. We review the district court's denial of Turner's motion for a new trial for an abuse of discretion. See id.

With respect to Turner's state law negligence claim, the defendants persuade us that the district court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over this claim. Where a charged act of negligence "arose out of the State employee's breach of a duty that is imposed on him solely by virtue of his State employment, sovereign immunity will bar maintenance of the action" in any court other than the Illinois Court of Claims. Currie v. Lao, 592 N.E.2d 977, 980 (Ill. 1992) (emphasis in ...

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