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Thomas v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Georgia
Feb 15, 1962
105 Ga. App. 321 (Ga. Ct. App. 1962)


recognizing that Kendrick v. Adamson establishes that "a special relationship exists between an officer and the prisoner in his custody"

Summary of this case from City of Richmond v. Maia




Action for damages. Gwinnett Superior Court. Before Judge Pittard.

Grubbs Prosser, J. M. Grubbs, for plaintiff in error.

Webb Fowler, W. Howard Fowler, contra.

1. When the bill of exceptions assigns error on the sustaining of a general demurrer to petition, but fails to state that this judgment was a final disposition of the case, yet the record shows that the general demurrer to the petition was sustained, a motion to dismiss bill of exceptions, on the ground that it does not affirmatively show jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals, will be denied.

2. A municipality is not liable for the negligence or misconduct of its officers in their performance of governmental functions.

3. Petition alleging that police officer incarcerated drunk prisoner, with lighted cigarette and matches on his person, in close cell, knowing he was helpless and partially unconscious, and left the prisoner unattended; that while prisoner was unattended mattress in cell caught fire and cell and surrounding room filled with smoke; that the officer returned and discovered smoke and knew fire was in the cell, but did not immediately remove prisoner, and while prisoner was still in the cell pumped water on burning mattress, which increased amount of smoke; and that prisoner died of exposure to fire and smoke shortly after his removal from cell, stated cause of action against officer for negligence as to deceased prisoner.

4. Petition alleging above facts, and that while a person at the scene attempted to rescue the prisoner from the cell co-defendant interfered and prevented the prisoner's being removed for about ten minutes, states cause of action against co-defendant.


The plaintiff (plaintiff in error) brought an action for the wrongful death of her husband against the defendants (defendant in error), the acting Chief of Police of Snellville, Georgia (hereinafter called "officer"), the City of Snellville (hereinafter called "City"), and Ernest Williams. The petition alleged: The deceased was arrested by the officer and charged with "driving under the influence of intoxicants, being involved in an accident, public drunkenness and disorderly conduct." The arrest was not made on a State highway or right-of-way, but in an open field, on private property, when the defendant was not driving an automobile, was not in a public place, and was not disorderly. The charges made against the deceased were merely a front, scheme, and device to cover up the wrong-doings and negligence of the defendants. When arrested, the deceased was unconscious and unable to stand and walk, and was dragged from the car by the officer and another person. The officer placed the deceased in a police car and transported him to the city jail and incarcerated him in a cage-like cell — a portable enclosure approximately 78 inches high, 96 inches wide, and 74 inches long, and divided in the center so as to create two cage-like enclosures approximately 48 inches wide, with no means for escaping. The cell was constructed with steel bands approximately one inch wide, woven and welded so as to leave openings between the woven steel bands of approximately one and one-fourth inches, which bands completely surrounded persons incarcerated in the cell. The cell was located in a small building used as a fire department and police department, within a 12 x 14 foot room having only two windows by which fresh air could enter. The officer knew of the deceased's condition when he incarcerated him as aforesaid, with matches and lighted cigarette, and exposed him to the hazards thereof, and did not have him examined by a doctor or seek medical attention for him. After thus incarcerating the deceased, the officer left and remained absent from the jail without having anyone in attendance. The mattress in the deceased's cell caught fire, while the deceased was in a helpless and partially unconscious condition and no one was in attendance, and the windows of the room, where the cell was, were closed, and there was no way for fresh air to enter and smoke from the fire to escape. The room and cell filled with smoke and the decedent began to suffocate. Approximately three hours after he had incarcerated the deceased, the officer returned to the jail and discovered the smoke. The officer, with knowledge of the fire raging within the cell, did not immediately remove the deceased from the cell, but first opened the doors and windows of the jail, got a fire pump started, began to pump water on the burning mattress, and ignored the deceased's peril. The pumping of the water increased the amount of smoke, decreasing the deceased's chances of survival. The defendant Williams arrived at the scene about two minutes after the officer. Four other persons arrived five minutes after the officer. One of these persons attempted to rescue the deceased from the cell, but Williams interfered and prevented the deceased from being removed for about ten minutes, until someone removed the deceased from the cell in spite of Williams' interference. The "exposure to the fire and smoke had taken its toll" and the deceased died shortly after his removal: The defendants' negligence was the proximate cause of the death. At all times and places alleged, the officer was acting as Chief of Police of the city, within the scope of his employment, for and on behalf of and as agent of the city. The city was negligent in maintaining and operating a jail in an unsafe condition, in failing to have someone in attendance while the deceased was incarcerated; in allowing the fire to start, and committing the decedent to death by suffocation. The city was negligent further, through the officer, in the particulars (b), (d), (e), and (f), charged as negligence of the officer, infra. The officer was negligent (a) in confining the deceased in the cage-like cell when he was in a partially unconscious and helpless condition; (b) in failing to have deceased examined medically before incarcerating him, when he knew his condition; (c) in incarcerating the decedent as aforesaid and leaving the jail with no one in attendance to supervise and protect the deceased; (d) in allowing the deceased, under the circumstances, to have on his person matches and a lighted cigarette; (e) in failing to rescue the deceased immediately after becoming aware of the fire; (f) in pumping water onto the burning mattress, increasing the smoke and the danger to the deceased; (g) in arresting and incarcerating the deceased when the decedent had not committed any violation of the city ordinances. The defendant Williams was negligent in deliberately and intentionally interfering with and hindering deceased's rescue.

Each of the defendants filed general demurrers to the petition. The city's demurrers included the grounds that "a municipal corporation is not liable for the torts of policemen or other officers engaged in the discharge of the duties imposed on them by law", and "the employment of a police officer and the maintenance of a jail are governmental functions and a municipal corporation is not liable in damages to any person for the imprisonment or death of one confined therein, caused by either the torts of the said police officer, or the negligent construction or maintenance of said jail."

The trial court sustained all the general demurrers, and the plaintiff assigns error.

1. The defendant in error has moved to dismiss the writ of error on the ground that the assignment of error is incomplete and defective for the reason that it does not properly assign error on a final judgment. The plaintiff in error specifically assigned error on the sustaining of a general demurrer to his petition. He then stated in his bill of exceptions that "if it had been rendered as claimed and contended by the plaintiff in error, [the judgment] would have been a final disposition of the cause of the plaintiff in error. . ."

It is true that every fact essential to the jurisdiction of this court should be affirmatively shown, either in the bill of exceptions or the record. Sellers v. McNair, 42 Ga. App. 731, 734 ( 157 S.E. 373). However, in case of a conflict between the bill of exceptions and the record, the latter controls. Howell v. Seigler, 89 Ga. App. 221 (3) ( 78 S.E.2d 874); Saliba v. Saliba, 201 Ga. 681 (1) ( 40 S.E.2d 732). Here the record shows that a general demurrer to the petition has been sustained and that the plaintiff in error has assigned error on such judgment. There being an assignment of error on the final judgment, the motion to dismiss is denied.

2. When a city "maintains a prison wherein to confine offenders, for the purpose of punishment of those charged with offenses, for safe-keeping until they can be tried," it is exercising a governmental power; and for the negligence of its officers in exercising this power it is not liable. Gray v. Mayor c. of Griffin, 111 Ga. 361, 363 ( 36 S.E. 792, 51 LRA 131); Archer v. City of Austell, 68 Ga. App. 493 ( 23 S.E.2d 512). That a municipality cannot be held responsible for the negligence or misconduct of officers in their performance of governmental functions, is a rule that as recently as 1951 has been firmly adhered to by the Supreme Court of Georgia, as shown by City of Atlanta v. Hurley, 83 Ga. App. 879 ( 65 S.E.2d 44), certiorari dismissed 208 Ga. 457 ( 67 S.E.2d 571), and the cases discussed therein. It is also clear that a municipal corporation is not liable for illegal arrests or tortious conduct of its police officers in the discharge of their duties. Code § 69-307; Gray v. Mayor c. of Griffin, 111 Ga. 361, 368, supra. Whether we prefer these rules or the decisions in other jurisdictions, which have been ably argued by the plaintiff, the decisions of the Supreme Court of Georgia are binding on this court as precedents. Art. VI, Sec. II, Par. VIII, Constitution of the State of Georgia. ( Code Ann. § 2-3708).

The trial court did not err in sustaining the city's demurrers.

3. We now reach the question — what was the duty owed by the officer to the prisoner, now deceased?

In Kendrick v. Adamson, 51 Ga. App. 402 ( 180 S.E. 647), it was held: "A sheriff owes to a prisoner placed in his custody a duty to keep the prisoner safely and free from harm, to render him medical aid when necessary, and to treat him humanely and refrain from oppressing him; and where a sheriff is negligent in his care and custody of a prisoner, and as a result the prisoner receives injury or meets his death, or where a sheriff fails in the performance of his duty to the prisoner and the latter suffers injury or meets his death as a result of such failure, the sheriff would, in a proper case, be liable on his official bond, to the injured prisoner or to his dependents as the case might be. . ." This case establishes the standard of care owed by a law enforcement officer to a prisoner placed in his care and custody — to keep the prisoner safe and free from harm, to render him medical aid when necessary, and to treat him humanely and refrain from oppressing him. Georgia is in accord with the majority of courts in imposing this standard of care. Anno. 14 ALR 2d 354.

We recognize the general rule argued by the defendant that in many circumstances a person has no legal duty to assist another human being who is in danger. However, when some special relation exists between the parties, social policy may justify the imposition of a duty to assist or rescue one in peril. Prosser on Torts (2d ed.) 184, § 38. That such a special relation exists between an officer and the prisoner in his custody has been decided. Kendrick v. Adamson, 51 Ga. App. 402, supra.

It is also recognized that if the defendant's own negligence has been responsible for the plaintiff's situation, a relation has arisen which imposes a duty to make a reasonable effort to give assistance, and avoid any further harm. 65 C.J.S. 550, § 55; Prosser on Torts (2d ed.) 185, § 38. Accord, Hardy v. Brooks, 103 Ga. App. 124, 126 ( 118 S.E.2d 492).

The most common test of negligence is whether the consequences of the alleged wrongful act are reasonably to be foreseen as injurious to others coming within the range of such acts, and what is reasonably to be foreseen is generally a question for the jury. Central of Ga. Ry. Co. v. Roberts, 94 Ga. App. 600, 610 ( 95 S.E.2d 693), reversed on other grounds, 213 Ga. 135 ( 97 S.E.2d 149); Crapps v. Mangham, 75 Ga. App. 563, 566 ( 44 S.E.2d 133). The question for the jury is whether danger should have been recognized by common experience, or by the special experience of the alleged wrongdoer, or by a person of ordinary prudence and foresight. Norris v. Macon Terminal Co., 58 Ga. App. 313, 317 ( 198 S.E. 272); 38 Am. Jur. 669, § 24; 65 C. J. S. 353, § 5.

In the performance of his duty to exercise ordinary diligence to keep his prisoner safe and free from harm, an officer having custody of a prisoner, when he has knowledge of facts from which it might be concluded that the prisoner may harm himself or others unless preclusive measures are taken, must use reasonable care to prevent such harm. In some circumstances reasonable care may require the officer to act affirmatively to fulfill this duty.

The present petition presents these questions which must be decided by the jury:

Was the officer negligent in leaving the prisoner incarcerated in a close cell and unattended, with a lighted cigarette and matches on his person, when he knew the prisoner was partially unconscious and helpless?

Should the officer, under the circumstances, in the exercise of his duty to keep the prisoner safe and free from harm, have immediately rescued the prisoner upon becoming aware of the fire in the cell?

Was the officer negligent in pumping water on the burning mattress in the prisoner's cell, in that he should, in the exercise or ordinary care, have anticipated that this would increase the danger to the prisoner?

The rule cited by the defendant's counsel, that "no one is bound to guard against or take measures to avert that which, under the circumstances, a reasonably prudent person would not anticipate as likely to happen" ( Pfeifer v. Yellow Cab Co., 88 Ga. App. 221, 226, 76 S.E.2d 225), does not require a holding that the officer was not negligent as a matter of law. 38 Am.Jur. 665, § 23, 667, § 24; Vol. II, Restatement of Torts, 762, § 289; 2 Harper and James, The Law of Torts, 907 et seq., § 16.5; 936, § 16.10; 964, § 17.1.

The petition alleges that the prisoner was helplessly drunk. Does this fact alter the conclusion we have reached above?

Counsel for defendants argues that the prisoner in getting drunk failed to exercise ordinary care for his own safety "and another can not be held liable for injuries thus occasioned." Southland Butane Gas Co. v. Blackwell, 211 Ga. 665 ( 88 S.E.2d 6), upon which the officer relies, does not support this argument. That case is distinguishable in important respects: The injured plaintiff there was not in the custody of the defendant, and the defendant had nothing to do with his being where he was. The plaintiff was helplessly drunk, but was voluntarily in the place of peril where he was injured. The defendant did not know of his helplessness until (if at all) his body came into defendant's view on the highway, at which time he was unable to avoid hitting plaintiff in spite of every effort on his part. The defendant's duty was held to be the same as that which is owed by landowners to trespassers — to exercise ordinary care not to injure them after becoming aware of their presence. The Supreme Court held that the motorist did not owe to the drunk plaintiff the duty normally owed to persons lawfully on the public highway — to exercise ordinary care to look out for and discover their presence.

The allegations in the present case show that the officer took custody of the prisoner and incarcerated him in a very close cell knowing that he was helpless and "partially unconscious." The prisoner may have been drunk voluntarily, but he was not in the cell voluntarily. The prisoner was not in the class of a trespasser at the place where he was injured. See Crapps v. Mangham, 75 Ga. App. 563, supra; Lovett v. Sandersville R. Co., 72 Ga. App. 692, 698 ( 34 S.E.2d 664). The defendant knew he was there and knew, or had reason to know, of his condition at all times.

The law is that "A person is charged with knowledge that a man staggering drunk is incapable of exercising ordinary care for his own safety, and he is bound to deal with him with that fact in mind." Bennett Drug Stores v. Mosely, 67 Ga. App. 347, 349 ( 20 S.E.2d 208). The present petition alleges that the officer had knowledge of the prisoner's helpless condition. If this be true, the officer in performing his duty to exercise ordinary diligence to keep the prisoner safe and free from harm, was bound to deal with him with his condition in mind.

We recognize that the petition in the Kendrick case, supra, which showed that the drunk prisoner by his own act set fire to himself, was held to set out no cause of action for negligence by allegations that the jailer incarcerated the prisoner without first searching and taking away from him articles such as matches with which he might inflict injury. The allegations in the present case, showing that the prisoner was helpless and partially unconscious and that the officer knew this and knew there was a means of harm on his person and in his surroundings, set it apart from the Kendrick case.

4. What we have said in the fifth paragraph of Division 3 applies also to the allegations that the defendant Williams interfered and prevented other persons from removing the deceased from the cell and was negligent therein. Vol. I, Restatement of Torts, 830, § 305; Prosser on Torts (2d ed.) 188, § 38.

The trial court erred in sustaining the demurrers of the defendant officer and the defendant Williams.

Motion to dismiss bill of exceptions denied. Judgment discussed in Division 2 of opinion affirmed. Judgment discussed in Divisions 3 and 4 of opinion reversed. Felton, C. J., and Bell, J., concur.

Summaries of

Thomas v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Georgia
Feb 15, 1962
105 Ga. App. 321 (Ga. Ct. App. 1962)

recognizing that Kendrick v. Adamson establishes that "a special relationship exists between an officer and the prisoner in his custody"

Summary of this case from City of Richmond v. Maia

sustaining cause of action for interference with rescue where defendant prevented rescue of inmate from jail cell during fire

Summary of this case from Abigail Alliance v. Eschenbach

outlining custodial duties owed prisoners

Summary of this case from Williams v. Kelley

In Thomas, the court found a duty on the part of a police officer to rescue a prisoner from a fire in his cell; this duty did not arise, however, because of the prisoner's intoxication but, rather, because of the special relation that exists between an officer and a prisoner in his custody.

Summary of this case from Smith v. 3M Elec. Monitoring, Inc.
Case details for

Thomas v. Williams

Case Details

Full title:THOMAS v. WILLIAMS et al

Court:Court of Appeals of Georgia

Date published: Feb 15, 1962


105 Ga. App. 321 (Ga. Ct. App. 1962)
124 S.E.2d 409

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