Deliberate Indifference: a Heightened Standard for Municipal Liability

JurisdictionUnited States,Federal
CitationVol. 19 No. 5 Pg. 861
Publication year1990
19 Colo.Law. 861
Colorado Lawyer

1990, May, Pg. 861. Deliberate Indifference: A Heightened Standard for Municipal Liability

Vol. 19, No. 5, Pg. 861

Deliberate Indifference: A Heightened Standard for Municipal Liability

by Patrick Kelly

On February 28, 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in City of Canton v. Harris,(fn1) which further defined the parameters of governmental liability by recognizing the concept of "deliberate indifference." This article explores the Harris decision and reviews subsequent decisions of the federal courts in order to provide a functional definition of deliberate indifference. To set the framework for Harris, the article begins with a brief review of the fundamental principles of municipal liability for civil rights violations arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("§ 1983").

Past History

In Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services,(fn2) the U.S. Supreme Court enumerated circumstances in which local governments could be held liable for deprivations of civil rights. The court noted that a municipality cannot be held liable under § 1983 on a respondeat superior theory. The Court reasoned that the governmental entity is responsible only when an injury occurs as a result of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its law makers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy....(fn3)

Prior to Harris, the Supreme Court held that it had never found § 1983 to contain a state-of-mind requirement.(fn4) However, Harris clearly sets forth such a requirement, which some commentators question as being inconsistent with the history of § 1983.(fn5) This state-of-mind requirement has resulted in a series of cases, as discussed below, involving claims of deliberate indifference against public officials and local governments.

The Facts in Harris

In Harris, the plaintiff brought a § 1983 civil rights action against the city of Canton, Ohio, for failure to provide her with necessary medical care while she was in temporary police custody. The plaintiff based part of her allegation on a theory of inadequate training by the city, which proximately caused the deprivation. Trial testimony showed that the city failed to provide any special training to police officers to enable them to make a determination as to when to notify medical authorities for an injured detainee. As a result, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, awarding her $200,000. After the city's writ of certiorari was granted, the Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded the case.

Essentially, the Supreme Court established a three-part test with respect to when inadequate police training could serve as the basis for liability under § 1983. First, it must be determined whether or not the existing training program is adequate. The Court held that the adequacy of a particular training program must be resolved "in relation to the tasks the particular officers must perform." The Court ruled that such training will be deemed adequate if it enables the police to respond properly to situations they deal with regularly.(fn6)

Second, if a training program is deemed inadequate, it justifiably may be said to constitute municipal policy. However, this is only the case when the failure to train the police amounts to "deliberate indifference to the rights of...

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