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Keith Lynn Petry v. Jeffrey Beard

April 13, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Carlson


I. Introduction

This case, which comes before the Court on a motion for summary judgment, presents questions concerning: (1) the extent to which inmates forfeit their right to be free from excessively dangerous conditions simply by virtue of volunteering to undertake work assignments in prison; and (2) whether providing flammable clothing to inmates who work in a prison furnace falls within any recognized exception to the state's sovereign immunity from tort liability. On the facts of this case, we conclude that the Plaintiff's constitutional claims are not barred as a matter of law by the mere fact that he may have agreed to work at this furnace. Similarly, we find that, on the unusual facts of this case, the Defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on their sovereign immunity claim.

II. Statement of Facts and of the Case

A. Factual Background

This case arises out of a November 28, 2007, incident in which it is alleged that clothing worn by an inmate, Keith Lynn Petry, who was working in the prison furnaces at SCI-Huntingdon, spontaneously ignited, causing serious burns and injuries to the Plaintiff. This clothing was provided to Petry by the Defendants, and it is alleged that those Defendants were aware that these clothes had in the past burst into flames when exposed to the intense heat of the prison furnaces, a contention which the Defendants dispute.

With respect to this incendiary incident, the pending motion for summary judgment reveals both areas of complete factual consensus, as well as matters which are the subject of heated factual dispute. At the outset, it is undisputed that, at the time of this incident, SCI-Huntingdon was heated by four large coal burning boilers, which were located in the boiler room of the prison powerhouse. (Doc. 28, Williams Decl. ¶ 4; Petry 28:15-23.) Inmates who worked in the powerhouse "pit crew" were responsible for feeding the boilers with coal, raking the coal, and removing the ash. (Doc. 28, Williams Decl. ¶ 5; Petry 31:22-32:12.) Raking the coals involved spreading the coals evenly in the furnace as they burned to cover over blowholes to maintain steam pressure. In 2007, inmates raked the coals with a long rake through a small door in the side of the boilers. (Doc. 28, Williams Decl. ¶¶ 6-7; Petry 32:20-33:22.) The inmate pit crew duties have remained fundamentally the same since the 1980's. (Doc. 28, Petry Dep. 52:3-17.)

While the parties agree regarding the fundamental duties of furnace pit crew inmates, they dispute whether inmates volunteer to expose themselves to all of these work conditions on the pit crew. For their part, the Defendants insist as a general matter that inmates are permitted to work certain designated inmate jobs within SCIHuntingdon. Placement of inmates in jobs is coordinated by the Inmate Employment Office. (Doc. 28, Hick-Kern Decl. ¶¶ 3-4.) As part of this process, inmates choose the jobs they wish to work by signing up for the job on prison's Work Reserve List. The Work Reserve List is a list of all inmates within the institution who are seeking employment at a specific job. Each inmate job has its own Work Reserve List. The longer an inmate waits on the list, the higher his name rises on the list in proportion to the other names. (Doc. 28, Hicks-Kern Decl. ¶ 5; Petry Dep. 51:3-24, 24:10-23, 25:7-9.) Thus, in order to be eligible to work in the powerhouse, an inmate must first volunteer to work in the powerhouse by putting his name on the powerhouse's Work Reserve List, and then wait until his name reaches the top of the list. (Doc. 28, Hicks-Kern Decl. ¶ 11.) No inmate would be assigned to work in the powerhouse who did not request that assignment. (Doc. 28, Hicks-Kern Decl. ¶ 16; Petry Dep. 51:20-24.)

While apparently acknowledging the existence of this job bidding process at SCI Huntingdon, Petry contests that inmates had any real choice over the specific conditions of their work on the pit crew, alleging that "they tell you how to work or you go in the hole." (Doc. 30, Petry Dep. 24:3-5.) Further, Petry stated "If you work on a job and they want you to do something that you don't want to do because you feel it is too dangerous, the first thing they will say is well, we'll write you up and go to the hole and then go for parole. It's kind of their way of, you know, kind of coercing you into doing something that you don't want to do." (Doc. 30, Petry Dep. 66:13-22.) Petry's statements were echoed by a second inmate, Richard Carion, who stated that a refusal to work would result in an inmate being served with a DC-141 Misconduct Report charging an inmate with refusing to obey a direct order from staff, and they were "ordered to continue working." (Doc. 30, Exhibit A - Affidavit of Richard Carion, p. 2,3.)

Although, the record reflects this factual dispute concerning the degree to which inmates were able to make voluntary choices regarding their work assignments, and work conditions, there appears to be broad agreement regarding the factual conditions of work on the prison boiler pit crew. It is undisputed that inmates on the pit crew performed their duties in conditions of intense heat. Indeed, during furnace operations, Curtis Williams, the Corrections Utilities Supervisor, estimated that the temperature inside the boiler was 2,300 degrees. (Doc. 30, Williams Dep. 20:19-21.) In order to protect themselves from the intense heat of these boilers, inmate pit crew members would often change into second-hand clothes offered by prison officials before working in the furnaces. The powerhouse provided inmates with these work clothes, which were typically older clothes given to the powerhouse by the laundry department. (Doc. 28, Williams Decl. ¶ 8.) Prior to starting their furnace shift, inmates could change into these work clothes. No inmate was required to wear the work clothing, but as a practical matter the intense heat of the boilers often compelled inmates to don additional clothing. (Doc. 28, Williams Decl. ¶ 8.; Petry Dep. 72:8-20.) Given the cast-off quality of the pit crew work clothes, it is undisputed that the clothes often consisted of worn garments, described by the Plaintiff as "old ripped up coats." (Doc. 30, Petry Dep. 36:16.)

Yet, while the duties and attire of inmate pit crew team members are largely undisputed, the extent of prior knowledge regarding the consequences which flowed from wearing these worn garments, without any other form of fire retardant, in the presence of the scorching heat of the prison boilers is the subject of great dispute. On one hand, the Plaintiff paints a stark portrait of the known nature of these risks. Indeed, Petry--who has been housed in SCI Huntingdon at various times over the span of many years-- testified that he was aware of coats catching on fire as far back as the 1980's. (Doc. 30, Petry Dep. 43:23.) He also saw shirts catch on fire. (Doc. 30, Petry Dep. 44:7.) Petry further stated "Just about anybody who worked there in the pit caught fire at one time or another." (Doc. 30, Petry Dep. 84:24-84:1.) According to Petry, he complained to Defendants, Honstine, Lynn, and Williams. (Doc. 30, Petry Dep. 87:5-7.) Petry alleges that Lynn, Honstine, and Williams all acknowledged these risks, told him that they had brought the problem of the clothing catching fire to Lt. Kitchen a year or a year and a half before November 28, 2007, (Doc. 30, Petry Dep. 130:17-25; 131:1-3), and advised him that they had requested more suitable protective clothing for pit crew. (Doc. 30, Petry depo. 131:10-22.)

Petry's claims are supported, in part, by prison medical records. These records reveal that Petry's shirt had previously ignited and caught on fire in September of 2006 while he was working on the pit crew, resulting in second degree burns to his arm and ear. (Doc. 30, Exhibit F - Prison Medical Records.) Petry's allegations regarding the known danger of clothing fires are further buttressed by an affidavit submitted by another inmate, Richard Carion. Inmate Carion alleges that:

For many months prior to November 28, 2007, inmates employed by the SCI-Huntingdon Power House, including myself, had been complaining of flames rising from the boiler when the coal was being raked. These complaints were made to the Power House supervisors, including supervisor Harry Lynn, Russell Reed, James Honstine, and utilities Plant Manager, Curtis Williams. The above-mentioned Power House supervisors provided workers' with a mask, similar to a welder's mask, as well as gloves, similar to those used for welding as well. Inmates were not provided full protection from sparks or flames. Instead they were instructed or ordered to utilize a corduroy jacket issued for winter use by the general population. Boiler temperatures were very hot and sparks would shoot out of the boiler. Workers, including myself and Mr. Keith Petry, complained again and again that we were fearful of catching on fire while raking the coal. (Doc. 30, Affidavit of Richard Carion, p. 1).

Inmate Carion also confirmed at least one prior incident in which Petry's clothing had ignited while working in the prison boilers, and alleged that prison officials were subjectively aware of this danger, stating that:

There was a first incident with Mr. Petry getting burned while raking the fire in the boiler which occurred several months before the incident of November 2007. Immediately after this first incident, many inmates, including myself, were again complaining of the working conditions and the risks of catching on fire unless proper protective clothing was provided. Within weeks of the first incident, I was told by Power House Supervisors, Lynn, Reed, and Honestine, that they had received full body non-flammable suits but chose to keep them locked in their office. More specifically, they were kept in the Power House supervisor's office. Inmate workers, including myself, inquired about the suits but were ordered to continue working without the suits as we had been told to do so previously. We were told that if an emergency arised that they could utilize the suits and that they would then be available for use by inmates working in the Power House. On November 28, 2007 Mr. Petry was then involved in another, second accident where he was burned severely. All of the Power House workers, including myself, were shocked and did not wish to continue working without the proper attire. I was told that if I refused to work that I would be served with a DC-141 Misconduct Report stating that I refused to obey a direct order from staff. (Id. pp.2-3.)

In contrast, the individual Defendants all denied any knowledge of, reports of, or complaints of, inmate clothing spontaneously combusting prior to November 28, 2007.

B. Procedural History

On November 24, 2009, Petry filed this civil action in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. (Doc.1.) In his complaint, Petry initially named ten Defendants. These Defendants included: Jeffrey Beard, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections in November 2007; Raymond Lawler, the Superintendent at SCI-Huntingdon in November 2007; Michael Harlow, the Deputy Superintendent at SCI-Huntingdon; Kevin Kauffman, the Captain of Security at SCIHuntingdon; Tim Yutzy, the Corrections Institution Safety Manager at SCIHuntingdon from December 1992 through June 2008; Charles Kitchen, the Tool Control Officer at SCI-Huntingdon; Curtis Williams, the Corrections Utility Supervisor at SCI-Huntingdon since May 2004; James Honstine, a utility plant operator at SCI-Huntingdon for the past 22 years; Russell Reed, a utilities plant operator at SCI-Huntingdon for 8 years; and Harry Lynn, the utility plant mechanic at SCI-Huntingdon for the past ten years.

Petry's complaint brought both constitutional and common law tort claims against the Defendants. At the outset, Petry alleged that the actions of prison officials, placing him in flammable clothing in the prison boiler room, knowing of the risk that the clothing provided to inmates could spontaneously combust, constituted deliberate indifference to the health and safety of the prisoners and rose to the level of a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. (Doc. 1.) In addition, to this constitutional tort, Petry argued, in the alternative, that the acts of prison officials were negligent and gave rise to common law tort liability under state law. (Id.)

Following the completion of discovery in this case, the Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment in this case, which sought dismissal of all claims and Defendants in this lawsuit. (Docs. 25-28.) The Plaintiff responded to this motion by conceding that some claims and parties should be dismissed, while contesting the motion for summary judgment as to other claims and parties. (Doc.30.) In particular, Petry contested the Defendants' claim that his willingness to work in the prison boiler pit crew defeats any Eighth Amendment claim since Petry is alleged to have voluntarily chosen to work in this setting. Further, Petry insisted that the negligence of prison staff, who garbed him in flammable clothing, falls within an exception to the general rule of sovereign immunity.

This summary judgment motion is now fully briefed and ripe for resolution. (Docs. 27, 30, and 31.) For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted, in part, with respect to Petry's claims arising under the Pennsylvania Constitution, and with respect to all of Petry's claims against Supervisory Defendants Beard, Lawler, Harlow, Kauffman, and Yutzey. The Defendants' ...

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