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Kneipp v. Tedder

September 18, 1996





Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

(D.C. Civ. No. 95-cv-00129)

Before: BECKER and MANSMANN, Circuit Judges, and BROTMAN, District Judge. *fn*

MANSMANN, Circuit Judge.

Argued June 3, 1996

Filed September 18, 1996)


In a civil rights complaint brought against the City of Philadelphia and certain police officers, the parents and legal guardians of Samantha Kneipp allege that late one January evening when Kneipp, in an obvious state of severe inebriation, was attempting to return on foot to her nearby apartment, the police officers stopped her and sent her on alone.

We hold that, if proven, the facts alleged will sustain a prima facie case of a violation of Kneipp's Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right and her liberty interest in personal security under the theory that city police officers increased the risk of harm to Kneipp which ultimately resulted in the severe damages she sustained. In so holding, we adopt the "state-created danger" theory as a viable mechanism for establishing a constitutional violation under 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983. On remand, the municipal liability claims against the City should be reexamined by the district court in light of the appropriate legal standard.

I. *fn1

The events leading to the tragedy that befell Samantha Kneipp began in the late evening of January 23, 1993. Samantha and her husband Joseph were returning on foot from a night of drinking at a tavern in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. *fn2 According to Joseph, Samantha was visibly intoxicated--she smelled of urine, staggered when she walked and, at times, was unable to walk without assistance. Joseph testified that he had to carry Samantha a portion of the way home.

Shortly after midnight, now January 24, 1993, Philadelphia Police Officer Wesley Tedder stopped the Kneipps for causing a disturbance on the highway. *fn3 At this point, the Kneipps were only one-third of a block from their home. Unable to stand by herself, Samantha was leaning on Officer Tedder's car. *fn4 Officer Tedder questioned Samantha and Joseph separately; he stated in his deposition that he smelled alcohol on Samantha and found both of them to be intoxicated. He gave Samantha instructions to go stand somewhere, which she did not follow. *fn5 Joseph told Officer Tedder that he just wanted to get his wife into their apartment.

Shortly after Officer Tedder stopped the Kneipps, three other police officers arrived separately at the scene and positioned themselves across the street from Officer Tedder. *fn6 Joseph left Officer Tedder and crossed over to the other side of the street where the police cars were situated. Joseph told one of the officers that he had a babysitter watching his son and that he was supposed to be home by now. Joseph then asked the officer if he could go home, to which the officer replied, "Yeah, sure." When Joseph left to walk home, Samantha was leaning on the front of a police car in the presence of several police officers. Joseph testified that he assumed that because Samantha was drunk, the police officers were going to take her either to the hospital or to the police station. His thoughts at the time were that Samantha should not be left alone in her inebriated state and that the police officers would take care of her, *fn7 so he proceeded home without her. *fn8 Officer Tedder, however, sent Samantha home alone; *fn9 she never reached her apartment building. *fn10

When his wife did not return to their apartment, Joseph went out to look for her. *fn11 He saw a police car parked in a Sunoco station not far from his apartment building. As Joseph approached the car, he discovered Officer Tedder inside, and asked him if he had locked up Samantha or had taken her to the hospital. According to Joseph, Officer Tedder told him "to get out of here before he locked [him] up." Because of a previous experience with the Philadelphia police, Joseph took Officer Tedder's remark seriously and left. *fn12 Joseph decided to continue looking for Samantha, and as he proceeded in the direction of a neighborhood convenience store, he thought he saw someone resembling Samantha, dressed in similar clothing, getting into an orange car. Because of Samantha's previous infidelity, Joseph thought that if it were Samantha, she was cheating on him again and would return when she was done. Joseph was never certain, however, that the woman he saw entering the car was Samantha. Joseph decided to forego his search and returned home. *fn13

At approximately 1:51 a.m., Officer Francis Healy responded to a radio call reporting that an individual was found unconscious at the bottom of an embankment next to a parking lot at the shopping plaza across the street from the Kneipps' home. The unconscious individual was Samantha Kneipp. Joseph was awakened around 4:00 a.m. by Officer Healy, who informed him that Samantha had fallen and was in the hospital.

As a result of her exposure to the cold, *fn14 Samantha suffered hypothermia, which caused a condition known as anoxia. *fn15 Consequently, the anoxia resulted in permanent brain damage impairing many basic body functions. *fn16

Samantha's legal guardians instituted this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983 against the City of Philadelphia and several police officers, alleging that the police officers were aware of Samantha's intoxication and "the potential for her to suffer harm because of her profoundly impaired faculties." By voluntarily assuming responsibility for her protection when they told Joseph he could leave, it was alleged that the officers affirmatively created a danger and increased the risk that Samantha might be injured when they later abandoned her. It is further alleged that the police conduct made Samantha "more vulnerable" [by] . . . "interfer[ing] with the efforts of Joseph [] to assist his wife to safety." Because the police officers acted with "deliberate or reckless indifference, callous disregard, or in such an arbitrary or abusive manner so as to shock the conscience," the legal guardians maintained that Samantha was deprived of her right to substantive due process and her liberty interest in personal security in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

In addition, the legal guardians contended that the City of Philadelphia, by acquiescing in the longstanding policy, custom, or practice of not posting "activity credits" for taking intoxicated pedestrians into custody, and by failing to adequately train its police officers in the proper care of intoxicated persons, acted with "deliberate or reckless indifference, callous disregard, or in an arbitrary and abusive manner so as to shock the conscience," thereby also violating Samantha's right to substantive due process and her liberty interest in personal security. *fn17

In granting the defendants' motion for summary judgment, the district court found that the legal guardians had failed to prove a constitutional violation under either the "special relationship" test or the state-created danger theory. The court also denied a motion for reconsideration. *fn18

The legal guardians filed a timely notice of appeal from the order of the district court. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section(s) 1291; we exercise de novo review of the district court's grant of summary judgment. Ideal Dairy Farms, supra; Antol v. Perry, 82 F.3d 1291, 1294 (3d Cir. 1996).


We begin our analysis with a discussion of the requirements for establishing a constitutional claim under 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983. The pertinent language of section 1983 states:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable ...

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