On 3 October 2023, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled again on the responsibility of high-level prison officials in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak at the Saint Quentin prison, holding that the claims brought by the heirs of the prisoners deceased as a result of the above outbreak are not barred by immunity.

Indeed, by judgment of 7 August 2023, the same Court had already dismissed a different immunity defense raised by the same prison officials in respect of a similar – but subjectively different – claim brought by the heirs of a prison guard who had died on account of the same outbreak at the Saint Quentin prison (see the relevant story published on 20 September 2023).

The factual and legal background of the case may be summarized as follows.

During the early stages of the pandemic, the California Institution for Men (CIM) suffered a severe COVID-19 outbreak. With a view to mitigate the effects of this outbreak, high-level officials of the prison decided to transfer 122 inmates from CIM to San Quentin Prison, where there were no known cases of the virus. The transfer resulted in a virus outbreak at the San Quentin Prison too, which killed one prison guard and over 25 inmates.

Most of the men who were transferred had not been tested for COVID-19 for over three weeks and none of them was properly screened for symptoms before the transfer. Furthermore, even though some of them exhibited symptoms, they were not put on quarantine at their arrival at the prison. Instead, all the transferred inmates were housed in a unit with grated doors. The transfer resulted in a violent COVId-19 outbreak at the San Quentin prison. Despite this state of affairs, the prison official continued to put in place inadequate protective practices and ignored the recommendations received by both the Public Health Officer and a court-appointed medical monitor of California prisons.

The wife of one of the deceased inmates – a then 62 man at high risk of death if he were to contract COVID-19 – filed suit, claiming that the prison officials had violated her husband’s constitutional and statutory rights.

The officials moved to dismiss the suit stating that they were entitled both to immunity under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP Act) and to qualified immunity. The PREP Act provides immunity from federal and state law claims relating to the administration of certain medical countermeasures during a declared public health emergency. The defendants argued that the plaintiffs’ claims were covered by immunity since the prisoner’s heirs had alleged that the death of their relative was caused at least in part by the defendants’ failure to administer COVID-19 tests to CIM inmates in the days prior to their transfer. They also alleged that the Act covered claims arising out of a failure to administer a covered countermeasure, such as the COVID-19 test.

In its judgment, the Circuit Court dismissed the defendants’ argument. The Court held that “the PREP Act provides immunity only from claims that relate to the administration to or the use by an individual of a covered countermeasure — not such a measure’s non-administration or non-use”. “This reading is reinforced by other sections of the Act, which continually refer to that underlying ‘administration’ or ‘use’ of a countermeasure”, the Court found.

The Court further reiterated the arguments already expressed in the abovementioned decision over the claims brought by the heirs of a prison guard that had died because of the outbreak. Namely, it held that the prison officials were not entitled to any immunity because of the novelty of the virus. In the Court’s view, at the time of the events, defendants knew or should have appreciated the risks faced by the plaintiff’s relative since guidance on the risks associated with the pandemic and on the preventive measures to be adopted in order to prevent the risk of spreading the virus already existed. Therefore, the Court held that the suit could proceed.

Reference: Hampton v. California, 3 October 2023, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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