Vol. 28 No. 28 – Negligent Supervisions, Chief Executives, and Personal Liability


On November 20, 2013 it was reported that Los Angeles County settled a negligent supervision lawsuit, brought by a former county jail inmate, in the amount of $722,000.  The inmate, Dion Starr, alleged that Sheriff Leroy Baca showed “deliberate indifference” to dangerous conditions in the county jail, resulting in his sustaining serious injuries.

The case of Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, was decided by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on February 11, 2011 where it ruled that Sheriff Baca could be held personally responsible for the actions of custodial deputies, even though he did not directly supervise them, nor was he present when the alleged misconduct occurred.

[JONES & MAYER published a Client Alert Memo alerting law enforcement to this situation when the court issued its ruling – see Client Alert Memo dated 2/22/11 on the firm’s website at www.jones-mayer.com.]

The Ninth Circuit held, in the case of Starr v. Baca, that a supervisor, up to and including the sheriff, can be held personally liable for damages if it can be shown that he or she was deliberately indifferent to the rights of inmates under his or her control.  The Court of Appeals overruled the actions of the trial court, which had dismissed the complaint against Sheriff Baca, and remanded the case for further proceedings.  The Ninth Circuit stated that the plaintiff “had sufficiently alleged a supervisory liability claim of deliberate indifference against Sheriff Baca.”

Following the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, L.A. County petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, but the Court refused to accept it, thereby leaving the Ninth Circuit’s decision intact.  The settlement agreement, as is the norm in settlements, does not admit culpability on the part of the county, the Sheriff’s Office, or Sheriff Baca himself.

Starr’s complaint alleged that, when he was in custody in the Los Angeles County Jail, a group of inmates gathered at his cell door and threatened to inflict physical harm on him. He yelled for the deputies guarding the jail to come to his aid. Instead of protecting him, a deputy opened Starr’s cell in order to allow the group of inmates to enter. The inmates entered the cell and repeatedly stabbed Starr and his cellmate with knife-like objects. They stabbed Starr twenty-three times while Starr screamed for help and protection.  Starr alleged that deputies stood by while the assault occurred and that one deputy participated in the assault.

Last month, in another case brought by an inmate, Tyler Willis, a federal jury again held Sheriff Baca personally liable for $100,000 in damages, based on the claim that he had been beaten by deputies while he was in custody.  It is still unclear as to whether the county will appeal that decision and/or if it will pay the damages on behalf of the Sheriff if the verdict stands.

Negligent Supervision

The Starr court noted that to be held liable under the theory of negligent supervision, “the supervisor need not be directly and personally involved in the same way as are the individual officers who are on the scene inflicting constitutional injury.  Rather, the supervisor’s participation could include his own culpable action or inaction in the training, supervision or control of his subordinates, his acquiescence in the constitutional deprivations of which the complaint is made, or conduct that shows a reckless or callous indifference to the rights of others.”

The Ninth Circuit held that, “a showing that a supervisor acted, or failed to act, in a manner that was deliberately indifferent to an inmate’s Eighth Amendment rights is sufficient to demonstrate the involvement – and the liability – of that supervisor.”  Under those circumstances, said the Court, “the supervisor is being held liable for his or her own culpable action or inaction, not held vicariously liable for the culpable action or inaction of his or her subordinates.”

Furthermore, “under California law, [t]he sheriff is required by statute to take charge of and keep the county jail and the prisoners in it, and is answerable for the prisoner’s safekeeping.”   That same responsibility is imposed on any law enforcement executive, pursuant to the constitutional duty to provide for the health and safety of those held in their custody.


This case should not be viewed as applying only to county sheriffs but, rather, to all supervisors and managers who have inmates under their control, whether in cities, counties, or the state.

Virtually all cities have, at the very least, short term “lock ups” which house prisoners; some cities have Type I jails which hold inmates on a long term basis, including sentenced prisoners; virtually all counties have jails under the control of the sheriff; three California counties have Departments of Corrections created by Boards of Supervisors; and some jurisdictions contract with operators of private jails or prisons.

Each and every one of these governmental agencies, and those who are in charge of the institutions, are subject to the same constitutional obligations referred to in the Starr case. Therefore, it is imperative that the heads of those agencies insure that proper training and supervision be in place to reduce the potential for these types of problems. Additionally, when supervisors and/or managers are informed that there are constitutional deprivations occurring in the institutions over which they have control, swift and immediate corrective action must be taken in order to eliminate or, at the very least, reduce potential personal liability.

As in all matters involving interpretation of the law, it is imperative that you secure the advice and guidance of your agency’s legal advisor. As always, if you wish to discuss this matter in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via e-mail at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice. The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute an attorney – client relationship.