Law Society Gazette Aug/Sept 2013

 

In June, a man was awarded €150,000 for injuries sustained while he was an inmate in prison. Emma Keane examines the first Irish case in which a court has held that the State can be liable for injuries caused by one inmate to another

In Creighton v Ireland and Others, Peter Creighton sued the State and Wheatfield Prison over an  incident in 2003 in which he was slashed in the face and body in an unprovoked attack by a fellow inmate. Mr Creighton gave evidence about the attack by his fellow prisoner, who cut and slit his face from his nose and behind his ear into the scalp, then cut his stomach. He claimed the State and the prison failed to take reasonable precautions for his safety and to ensure he was not exposed to risk of injury. He also
claimed the system for bringing prisoners from the cells to receive methadone was dangerous. The defendants  denied the claims.

The case came before the High Court in 2009, when  Mr Creighton was awarded €40,000 by Mr Justice White, who found that there had been a failure on the part of the prison authorities in their duty of care, particularly in the light of two attacks in the previous six months.  The defendants appealed the High Court decision and, in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the case should be reheard, on the basis, among other matters, that the
first trial judge failed to resolve certain conflicts of fact, thereby not considering the case on its merits.

Failed duty
On 14 June 2013, following a re-hearing before Mr Justice O’neill, Mr Creighton was awarded €100,000 for the injuries to his face and €50,000 for the injuries to his body. The assault was described by the judge as “extraordinarily vicious”. The judge ruled that the authorities failed in their duty by allowing more than 15 prisoners to congregate in an area for receipt of methadone. He found that allowing such numbers facilitated the assault, which would not have occurred if the numbers had been kept to four or less.

The judge stated: “When there are systems or practices in place which have obvious deficiencies and, at the same time, clearly foreseeable risks to the safety of prisoners, and when the evidence establishes that these systems or practices are readily remediable, it behoves the courts to intervene. In my view, the practice of congregating large number of prisoners in Space B for the purpose of waiting for their methadone is such a practice and, in my view, the adherence to it breached the defendants’ duty of care to the plaintiff.”

Mr Justice O’Neill also found that the defendants breached their duty by failing to erect netting around the perimeter yard of the prison, preventing items being thrown in from the outside. The judge said that, in all probability, that is where the knife used in the attack came from. The knife used was described by Mr Creighton as a “kind of Stanley blade”. It was distinguished from the sort of improvised weapons that could be made from normal materials found in prison kitchens or bathrooms, such as a razor blade melted into the end of a toothbrush.

Mr Justice Fennelly remarked in the decision of the Supreme Court: “The severity of the lacerations sustained by the plaintiff seems at least consistent with the use of an extremely sharp blade.” no weapon was found during a search after the incident. Mr Justice White in his judgment had referred to this as “a fact that astounds me”. This was the first case in Ireland in which it has been held by a court that the State can be liable for injuries caused by one inmate to another. It is quite incredible that, despite the relatively high number of cases taken by prisoners against the State for injuries sustained in an attack while in custody, Mr Creighton was the first person to be awarded damages by the High Court for such injuries.

The State Claims Agency, which handles all personal injury actions lodged against the Irish Prison Service, said it received 174 claims relating to the service last year. Creighton was also the first case in Ireland in which evidence was given by a prisons expert. Mr Outram, a retired prison governor from Britain gave expert evidence in the case for Mr Creighton.

Failed cases
All previous cases involving prisoners suing the State for injuries inflicted by other prisoners have failed for varying reasons. For example, Muldoon v Ireland
involved a plaintiff who was serving a prison sentence in Arbour Hill. While taking a break in the recreation yard, he was attacked by another prisoner. The case was withdrawn from the jury, President Hamilton holding that, while the prison authorities were required to take all reasonable steps and reasonable care not to expose any of the prisoners to a risk of damage or injury, the law does not expect the authorities “to guarantee that prisoners do not suffer injury during the course of their imprisonment”.

In Kavanagh v Governor of Arbour Hill Prison, the plaintiff was stabbed in the face by
another prisoner when walking from the recreation hall to his cell. Mr Justice Morris
rejected the plaintiff’s claim, noting that the inmates were “to a very large extent sexual offenders”, the prison did not cater “for subversives or terrorist prisoners” and, broadly, the prisoners were “settled, long-term prisoners”. The judge held, therefore, that the system of searching the prisoners was appropriate to the kind of prisoner accommodated in Arbour Hill.

In Bolger v Governor of Mountjoy Prison, the attacking prisoner, named Flynn, had
a history of bad behaviour. A bucket of scalding water was thrown over the plaintiff by Flynn, who had six years previously also attacked another prisoner with boiling water. Mr Justice O’Donovan remarked that he did not think that because six years previously, “when he was only 16 years of age”, Flynn had attacked another prisoner with boiling water that “it was incumbent on the prison authorities to deny him access to hot water”. The judge stated: “To punish an adult prisoner in that way for an offence which he had committed when only a boy would, in my view, be grossly excessive.”

The assault in Bates v Minister for Justice involved an appalling combination of scalding, hitting with a heavy object, and cutting with a blade. The high security prisoners in question were released from their cells for breakfast. They were permitted to make their own tea. The aggressor in Bates filled a jug with hot water from the boiler, entered the plaintiff’s cell, threw the hot liquid into the plaintiff’s face, and carried out the rest of his attack. Evidence was given by the plaintiff in relation to delay by the prison officers in entering his cell. The officers’ evidence in relation to this conflicted with that of the plaintiff. In relation to this, Mr Justice Murphy, giving the judgment for the Supreme Court, stated: “It is, however, significant to note that the prison officers were not cross-examined in relation to the evidence which they gave in this regard.”
The plaintiff’s case, however, was dismissed in both the High Court and the Supreme
Court.

Landmark case
Creighton heralds a significant landmark in the pursuit of prisoners’ rights. It is presumed that many cases claiming damages for assaults by fellow prisoners in custody will now be brought by prisoners against the State. It remains to be seen, however, whether many or any of these claims will  succeed.

It is expected that the absolute necessity of evidence by prison experts will continue
to be recognised and that they will be frequently used in these cases. It is hoped
that Creighton has put an end to the blanket failure of such cases against the State and
that other meritorious cases will now succeed.

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