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Detainee Can Sue Sheriff Over Deputy’s Assault

A Roanoke U.S. District Court says a female pretrial detainee may sue the former sheriff for vicarious liability for a deputy sheriff’s alleged sexual assault and battery when the deputy violated transportation protocols by taking her in his private service car and detouring to a church parking lot to assault her instead of taking her directly to the Western Virginia Regional Jail Authority.

Defendant sheriff argues he cannot be held vicariously liable for the actions of the deputy because he was not the Franklin County Sheriff at the time of the alleged sexual assault and he never supervised or employed the deputy.

The amended complaint does not state claims against the sheriff sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss. The amended complaint alleges only state law claims against the sheriff, distinguishing this case from instances where courts have found that successor liability of a sheriff is appropriate.
In the instant case, the only claims asserted against the current sheriff are state law claims for assault and battery and gross negligence. Also, because the sheriff did not supervise or employ the defendant deputy, there is no basis alleged to hold him vicariously liable for the deputy’s alleged wrongful acts. Similarly, because defendant sheriff was not the county sheriff when the alleged events occurred, there is no basis for a gross negligence claim related to overseeing the sheriff’s department and sheriff’s deputies during that time. The court grants the sheriff’s motion to dismiss these claims.

The court also finds plaintiff has not pled sufficient facts showing that defendant Western Virginia Regional Jail Authority had the duties alleged. Defendant deputy was a sheriff’s deputy transporting plaintiff from a holding cell in Rocky Mount and had not yet arrived at the WVRJ when the alleged assault occurred. The deputy “intentionally passed the necessary turn off” to the WVRJ, and drove to a church parking lot where he allegedly sexually assaulted plaintiff. Plaintiff’s claim that the WVRJ failed to properly train its employees to prevent situations where a male deputy transported a female prisoner alone is inapposite, as there is no allegation that the deputy was an employee of the WVRJ.

The sheriff at the time of the alleged assault argues the court should find on a motion to dismiss that the deputy was not acting within the scope of his employment and the prior sheriff cannot be held liable.

The defendant deputy would not have had access to plaintiff, and specifically, access to her alone, in the middle of the night, were it not for his employment as a sheriff’s deputy. This court may ultimately determine that, as a matter of law, by improperly placing plaintiff in the front seat of his own service vehicle and driving past the WVRJ to a church parking lot with the specific purpose of sexually assaulting plaintiff, defendant deputy engaged in an independent venture, suspending the relation of master and servant. Indeed, the former sheriff argues the deputy’s actions were “premeditated” in that he “groomed her for it” and “disobeyed orders and standard transportation protocol,” and “deviated from his regular route to the jail.” However, further development of the record is needed to make this determination. At this stage of the proceedings, defendant sheriff has not met his burden of showing the deputy was not acting within the scope of his employment. Plaintiff may not sue for strict liability, but may sue for vicarious liability on the basis of respondeat superior.

The court grants the prior sheriff’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claim for gross negligence and for punitive damages, and her claim for violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Oakes v. Patterson (Urbanski) No. 7:13cv552, April 17, 2014; USDC at Roanoke, Va. VLW 014-3-213, 18 pp.

VLW 014-3-213

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