The Debtors’ Prison Project worked with Public Justice’s Access to Justice attorneys to assemble a team of appellate experts to handle this appeal. The original case was filed on behalf of the surviving family members of a pretrial detainee, Erie Moore, who died after he was assaulted and beaten by guards at a for-profit prison in Monroe, Louisiana.
Mr. Moore was arrested for disturbing the peace, a misdemeanor offense, and taken to a for-profit prison in Louisiana. A day later, after prison guards dropped him on his head, shackled him, beat him, and sprayed him with toxic chemicals, Mr. Moore was comatose. He never regained consciousness and died a month later. His family filed suit under § 1983 (the federal civil rights statute) and state tort law against the individual officers involved, the private prison facility and management company, and the City. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants on almost every claim. Ultimately, ten different rulings were on appeal, including several summary judgment rulings.
In a powerful decision, the Fifth Circuit reversed on almost every issue. The court held that a reasonable jury could find the prison’s employees caused Mr. Moore’s death and that those employees are not entitled to qualified immunity from liability. In addition, the court held that a reasonable jury could find the private prison corporations liable for implementing policies that caused Mr. Moore’s death.
Finally, closely following Public Justice’s briefing on the issue, the Fifth Circuit held that the private companies may be held liable for punitive damages under § 1983, and they acted with such extreme disregard to Mr. Moore’s rights that a jury could award punitive damages. In reaching this decision, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s holding that punitive damages under § 1983 aren’t available against corporations as a matter of law. While the court did not reach the issue of whether private corporations can be vicariously liable for their employees’ civil rights violations, the court’s analysis on punitive damages signaled that it agreed with our reasoning on this point.
The defendants sought rehearing en banc, specifically urging the full court to overturn the panel’s ruling that private companies can be held liable for punitive damages in civil rights cases. In August 2022, the court denied that petition.
Co-counsel: Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP (Washington, DC); Nelson Cameron (Shreveport, LA); Howard University School of Law Civil Rights Clinic.
Briefs and documents:
- Appellants’ Opening Brief (June 14, 2021)
- Brief of Amici Curiae Promise of Justice Initiative, National Police Accountability Project, ACLU of Louisiana, and Tulane Law School Civil Rights and Federal Practice Clinic in Support of Appellants (June 21, 2021)
- Brief Amicus Curiae of Rights Behind Bars (June 21, 2021)
- Reply Brief (October 1, 2021)
- Oral argument recording (May 11, 2022)
- S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decision (July 22, 2022)
- Press Release about victory (July 27, 2022)
- Order denying denial of petition for rehearing en banc (August 19, 2022)