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Jay Strauss v. County of Berks; Eric J. Weaknecht

May 24, 2011

JAY STRAUSS PLAINTIFF
v.
COUNTY OF BERKS; ERIC J. WEAKNECHT, SHERIFF; DEPUTY SHERIFF JACKSON; AND DEPUTY SHERIFF RICE DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Perkin, M.J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendants Berks County, Berks County Sheriff Eric Weaknecht, Deputy Sheriff Michael Jackson and Deputy Sheriff Ken Rice filed April 11, 2011. Defendants' Berks County, Berks County Sheriff Eric Weaknecht, Deputy Sheriff Michael Jackson and Deputy Sheriff Ken Rice's Memorandum of Law in Support of Their Motion for Summary Judgment; Statement of Undisputed Facts; and Exhibits A-D were filed simultaneously with their motion. Plaintiff's Brief Opposing the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendants County of Berks, Eric Weaknecht, Sheriff, Deputy Sheriff Jackson, and Deputy Sheriff Rice was filed April 21, 2011. Plaintiff's Reply to Defendants' "Statement of Undisputed Facts" Contra Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and Exhibits P1-P6 were filed simultaneously with his brief in opposition. Having reviewed and considered the contentions of the parties, the Court is prepared to rule on this matter.

I. Background

Based upon the record papers, exhibits, depositions, and the parties' statements of facts, the pertinent facts to this Court's determination are as follows:

On January 15, 2009, plaintiff Jay Strauss, an inmate housed at Bucks County Prison, was transported by the Berks County Sheriff's Department from Berks County Prison to Bucks County Prison. Mr. Strauss was transported in a Berks County Prison 2006 Ford Econoline transport van *fn1 operated by defendants Deputy Sheriff Michael Jackson and Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Rice. Both deputies served under the elected Berks County Sheriff, Eric J. Weaknecht. Sheriff Weaknecht was responsible for developing departmental policies for the proper transportation of inmates by the deputy sheriffs under his supervision, and for providing the training necessary to carry out that task properly.

On the day of the transport, the weather was comprised of snow and sleet with outside temperatures well below freezing, at approximately 17 degrees Fahrenheit. Mr. Strauss was wearing a short-sleeved prison jumpsuit with no coat, gloves, or hat. At approximately 8:25 a.m., Mr. Strauss was placed alone in the rear section of the transport van, restrained by handcuffs, shackles, and a belly chain. Although the rear section of the transport van is closed off from the front cabin, there is a small rectangular metal sliding panel that provides access to a plexiglass window for the deputies in the front cabin to observe the prisoners in the rear section of the transport van.

When Mr. Strauss first got into the transport van, he asked the deputies to turn up the heat because it was cold. Deputy Sheriffs Jackson and Rice acknowledged that they were aware that it was not very warm in the back of the transport van. On this particular day, the trip from Berks County Prison to Bucks County Prison was delayed as a result of a snow related accident on Route 422 outside of Reading, Pennsylvania. The total trip took approximately two and one half hours.

During the course of the transport, Mr. Strauss repeatedly called out to Sheriff Deputies Jackson and Rice and banged on the floor and sides of the rear section, requesting that they turn the heat on in the back of the transport van because he was freezing. The deputies advised Mr. Strauss that the heat was "on," and after Mr. Strauss's fourth request, the deputies turned up the radio in the front cabin to avoid hearing his pleas for heat. The deputies never opened the panel in an effort to view Mr. Strauss in the rear section, and because a departmental policy prohibited stops, except in emergencies, they never stopped the transport van to investigate Mr. Strauss's complaints. Throughout the transport, no heat was provided in the rear section for Mr. Strauss.

Upon arrival at the Bucks County Prison, Deputy Sheriffs Jackson and Rice opened the rear doors of the transport van and found Mr. Strauss laying on the floor shivering and unresponsive. Mr. Strauss was placed in a wheelchair, wheeled into the prison, and was administered first aid. According to plaintiff's medical expert, Mr. Strauss suffered frostbite and developed peripheral neuropathy as a result of the incident.

In their incident report, Deputy Sheriffs Jackson and Rice admitted that they did not know how to activate the heat in the rear section of the transport van. More specifically, the incident report provides as follows:

When leaving the prison we checked if the heater switch, which we had on, did activate the heat. It was found that the switch did not activate the heat. Upon further investigation we were told that you must have the heater and the air conditioning switches on together to activate the heat in the back.

Plaintiff filed claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all defendants, asserting that they violated his Eight and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as a negligence claim against Berks County.

II. Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A dispute is "genuine" when "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party" based on the evidence in the record. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is "material" when it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Id.

A party seeking summary judgment initially bears responsibility for informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record that "it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof on a particular issue at trial, the moving party's initial Celotex burden can be met simply by demonstrating to the district court that "there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case." Id. at 325.

After the moving party has met its initial burden, the adverse party's response must cite "particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1). Summary judgment is therefore appropriate when the non-moving party fails to rebut by making a factual showing that is "sufficient to establish the existence ...


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