Christopher Crosby v. Strafford County Department of Corrections et al.

No Causal Nexus, No Liability
U.S. District Court for New Hampshire, Opinion No. 2014 DNH 100
Tuesday, June 2, 2015

In this case, the New Hampshire Federal Court concluded that the defendant had failed to establish the “causal nexus” necessary to prevent governmental immunity pursuant to RSA 507-B:2.

Crosby, the defendant, was a pre-trial detainee the Strafford County House of Corrections. He had reported various threats made to him by other inmates and was eventually assaulted by another inmate. Some of the correctional officers who received complaints had taken further action, including a threat of punishment to those allegedly making threats and reporting Crosby’s complaints up the chain of command. Crosby sued the Strafford County Department of Corrections (SCDC) as well as several correctional officers in their individual capacity.

The Court first addressed whether SCDC was entitled to governmental immunity under RSA 507-B:5, which provides immunity for “an action to recover for bodily injury, personal injury or property damage except as provided by this chapter or as is provided or may be provided by other statute.” Crosby argued the RSA 507-B:2 immunity exception, which states that “[a] governmental entity may be held liable for damage in an action to recover for bodily injury, personal injury or property damage caused by its fault or by fault attributable to it, arising out of ownership, occupation, maintenance or operation of all motor vehicles, and all premises.” The key to this exception is that the plaintiff must establish that the injury arose out of ownership, occupation, maintenance or operation of a motor vehicle of premises. The Court looked to two New Hampshire Supreme Court cases for guidance, starting with Dicharia v. Sanborn Reg’l Scho. Distr., 165 N.H. 694 (2013). There, the school district was immune from liability for injuries a student sustained while participating in a basketball drill. Although the injury occurred on governmental premises, the injury did not arise out of the operation of premises; instead, the injury arose out of the basketball coach’s alleged negligence on the school’s premises. Therefore, the relationship between the school property and the injury was location, not causal connection. In reaching that decision, the Dichiara Court had relied on its earlier decision in Chatman v. Strafford County, 163 N.H. 320 (2012), where the Court made a clear distinction between a motor vehicle acting merely as the location of an injury and the operation of a motor vehicle actually causing the injury, holding that the act of hitching a trailer to a truck did qualify as operation of a motor vehicle. Based on Dicharia and Chatman, the Federal Court held that SCDC was immune from liability because the house of corrections was merely the site of plaintiff’s injury.

The Court then addressed the individual liability of the named corrections officers. RSA 504-B:4, IV extends the principle of governmental immunity to an employee, as long as the employee was doing two things: (1) acting within the scope of employment and (2) acting in good faith. There was no evidence produced that the officers were not acting within the scope of their employment, so the Court was left to consider whether their actions were made in good faith. Because the statute does not define “good faith,” the Court looked to a New Hampshire Supreme Court case defining “good faith” for the purpose of the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, see Appeal of Osram Sylvania, Inc., 142 N.H. 612, 617 (1998), and ultimately defined “good faith” in RSA 504-B:4, IV as “honesty in belief or purpose” and “faithfulness in one’s duty of obligation.” Based on this definition, the Court held that the plaintiff could not establish the defendants’ lack of good faith.

For the Court’s detailed analysis of the evidence, please see the attached decision.