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Smith v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 23, 2017

Cedric J. Smith, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
United States of America, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued April 18, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 4:14-cv-4009 - Harold A. Baker, Judge.

          Before EASTERBROOK, KANNE, and ROVNER, Circuit Judges.

          ROVNER, Circuit Judge.

         Cedric Smith brought suit against the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2671, et seq., for injuries he sustained when he fell off a stool at the federal courthouse in Rock Island, Illinois. Smith relies on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to impute negligence to the government. The district court concluded that Smith had not made a showing sufficient to trigger the res ipsa loquitur inference of negligence. R. 12. We find to the contrary and reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         As the case was decided on summary judgment, we take the facts in the light most favorable to Smith. E.g., Vega v. New Forest Home Cemetery, LLC, 856 F.3d 1130, 1131 (7th Cir. 2017).

         On the morning of January 18, 2013, Smith was transported from the Rock Island County Jail to the U.S. District Courthouse in Rock Island to be arraigned on a federal weapons charge. Following the arraignment before Judge Darrow, deputy U.S. marshals took Smith to an interview room so that he could meet with his appointed counsel to discuss the case.

         The U.S. Marshals Service maintains two secure attorney interview rooms in the courthouse where lawyers may confer with clients who are in the government's custody. The Marshals Service inspects the furniture and equipment in the rooms on a weekly basis. The room to which Smith was taken is divided in half by a wall with a large screened opening that enables the lawyer sitting on one side of the screen to speak with his (detained) client sitting on the other. On the detainee's side of the room there is a metal stool attached to the wall by means of a swing-arm that permits the stool to be positioned in front of the wire screen or moved out of the way to accommodate a detainee in a wheelchair. The Marshals Service controls access to the room, escorting a detainee like Smith into his side of the room and separately buzzing the attorney into the other half of the room by means of an electronic lock. Typically, a detainee's handcuffs are removed when he is brought into the room, but his leg irons are left in place.

         According to Smith, when he entered the interview room and sat down on the stool (which was already positioned in front of the screen), the stool "broke" and tilted backwards, with the front of the stool rising and the back descending, causing him to fall to the floor and strike his head. As he looked up from the floor at the underside of the stool, he could see that there were bolts missing. When he tried to balance himself on the stool as he lifted himself from the floor, it wobbled again.

         Smith's attorney summoned a court security officer to help Smith, and he was sent back to the Rock Island County Jail with instructions that he be seen immediately by the jail nurse. When the nurse examined Smith and noted that his speech was slurred, she arranged for him to be taken to the emergency room at a local hospital. There he was treated for a stroke. By his own account, Smith continues to suffer a variety of adverse effects from the incident, including weakness on the left side of his body, difficulty speaking, headaches, and memory impairment.

         Smith avers that when he returned to the Rock Island courthouse at a later date and used the same interview room, he examined the stool and found that it had been welded into place. The stool no longer wobbled.

         Smith filed an administrative tort claim against the Marshals Service alleging that the stool was broken on January 18, 2013, and that he had fallen and struck his head as a result. That claim was denied.

         Smith then brought suit against the government under the FTCA.[1] The district court recruited counsel to represent him pro bono. Smith asserted multiple claims below, but the sole claim that he pursues on appeal is one of ordinary negligence. That claim is premised on the theory that the government breached the duty of care that it owed to Smith to maintain reasonably safe premises at the courthouse and in particular to keep the stool in the interview room in a condition safe for use. Smith relied on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to impute negligence to the government. Smith reasoned that the government (through the Marshals Service) controlled access to the room; that it inspected the equipment in the room and was responsible for maintenance of that equipment, including the stool; and that the ...


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