Some Suits Against Municipalities OKd

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court opened the door slightly Tuesday to permit suits against a local government whose policies and actions reflect a “deliberate indifference” to the rights of its citizens and result in their harm or injury.

The ruling, stemming from a jailhouse incident in Canton, Ohio, helps to clarify what had been a muddled area of law in cases such as alleged police brutality.

In 1978, the high court first ruled that a city or county may be sued in federal court if it had a “policy” that resulted in the violation of a citizen’s constitutional rights. But, since then, justices have not made clear what citizens had to show to prove such policies existed.

The unanimous ruling announced Tuesday, attorneys in the case said, appears to allow some suits to proceed to trial, although it may make it difficult for citizens to win them.


Justice Byron R. White, writing for the court, cited an example of how the new rule might work. If a city gives guns to its police officers but fails to train them in their use, that could be considered “deliberate indifference” by the city to its citizens’ welfare, and the municipality might then be held liable in a damage suit.

But this is the extreme exception, he said, adding that cities must not be exposed to “unprecedented liability” merely because “an injury or accident could have been avoided if an officer had had better or more training.” Moreover, juries must not be permitted to engage in “an endless exercise of second-guessing” of local officials’ decisions.

The justices sent the case of Geraldine Harris back to an appeals panel in Cincinnati to decide whether she deserves a new trial. In 1978, Harris was arrested by Canton policemen but slumped to the floor at the jailhouse, suffering emotional problems for which she later was hospitalized. Her suit contends that her constitutional rights were violated because the police failed to give her adequate medical care (Canton vs. Harris, 86-1088).

The high court Tuesday made no mention of last week’s ruling in a child abuse case, which, on its face, came to a nearly opposite result. But lawyers say the two cases are distinct.


Tuesday’s ruling dealt with a situation in which a government or its employees take action, such as a police officer’s collaring a citizen or holding him in custody. Then, the government may be sued under limited circumstances.

In contrast, last week’s decision dealt with a failure to act by county workers. In that situation, in which a father nearly beat his young son to death, the county may not be sued in federal courts, the court said, because it had no obligation under the U.S. Constitution to protect its citizens.

Attorneys representing cities and counties said they were pleased with the latest ruling and predicted that it would end most federal suits against local governments.

“The court has set a very high standard, because you (as an injured citizen) have to prove that local elected officials acted deliberately, and with indifference, and that this caused the injury,” said Benna Solomon, chief counsel for the National League of Cities and other government groups. “I think there are very few cases that can meet that standard.”