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Official can’t dismiss claims arising out of detainee’s death

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//June 5, 2023

Official can’t dismiss claims arising out of detainee’s death

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//June 5, 2023

Where a lawsuit alleged that a correctional officer was present during assaults by his fellow officers on a detainee, the officer’s motion to dismiss the gross and willful and wanton negligence claims was denied. The complaint plausibly alleged the officer had a duty to protect the detainee and that the harm was foreseeable.


The plaintiff in this lawsuit seeks damages for the death of her decedent, Charles James Givens, who died while incarcerated in a Virginia state prison, and who she contends was beaten to death by correctional officers. One of the defendants, Samuel Dale Osborne, is alleged to have failed to act to protect Givens from the attack. In Counts Four and Five, state law claims for gross and willful and wanton negligence are asserted against Osborne. Osborne has filed a motion to dismiss these counts on the ground that he owed no duty under Virginia law to protect Givens.


As a general rule, “a person has no duty to control the conduct of third persons in order to prevent physical harm to another.” The Supreme Court of Virginia has established two exceptions to the general rule of non-liability. The first exception involves a defendant who has “expressly assume[d] a duty to protect another from criminal harm.” The second is for “dut[ies] not assumed but imposed” based on the existence of a special relationship.

Under the special relationship doctrine, there are two theories of liability. First, when a special relationship exists between a defendant and a third person that requires the defendant to control the third person’s actions so as to prevent harm to a potential victim, the general rule allowing a defendant’s inaction is not applicable. Second, a special relationship between a defendant and a potential victim of a third person’s actions, imposes a duty upon the defendant to protect the potential victim.

Based upon the Restatement (Second) of Torts, it has been held that Virginia negligence law would hold that prison officials are in a special relationship with inmates. A jail official’s duty to protect an incarcerated person from a substantial and known risk of harm has been a long-established principle. I find that the plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that Osborne had a special relationship with Givens that created a duty to protect him while he was in custody.

The mere existence of a special relationship is not enough. “A duty of care arises only where the ‘particular circumstances of that special relationship’ make the danger of harm from a third party foreseeable.” Osborne asserts that his codefendants’ criminal actions were not foreseeable; therefore, he bore no duty to stop them from harming Givens. However, based on the plaintiff’s recitation of historical events, in that Osborne was actually present during the assaults by his fellow officers, I can reasonably infer that Osborne should have known that the other officers would injure Givens.

Defendant’s motion to dismiss denied.

Hobbs v. Kelly, Case No. 1:23-cv-00003, May 19, 2023. WDVA at Abingdon (Jones). VLW 023-3-272. 14 pp.

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