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July 3, 1990


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Paul R. Webber, III, Trial Judge

Terry, Schwelb, and Farrell, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terry

Appellees Carmichael and Johnson, inmates of the District of Columbia's maximum security prison at Lorton, Virginia, were assaulted by several of their fellow prisoners. They received multiple stab wounds and required surgery and extended hospitalization. A few months later they brought this negligence action against the District of Columbia, basing their claim on D.C. Code § 24-442 (1989). *fn1 Their main contention was that their injuries resulted from the District's failure to control the supply of contraband weapons within the prison.

At trial appellees relied heavily on the testimony of an expert witness. The District twice moved for a directed verdict, arguing each time that appellees had failed to offer sufficient evidence to support a finding of negligence. The trial court denied both motions and submitted the case to a jury, which awarded $75,000 to Carmichael and $100,000 to Johnson. The court later denied the District's post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

On appeal the District argues that appellees' evidence was insufficient to prove negligence because it failed to establish a standard of care by which the jury might have determined that the District was negligent. We hold that the evidence was indeed insufficient, and that the testimony of appellees' expert did not prove a standard of care relating to the control of contraband weapons in a maximum security prison such as Lorton. We therefore reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand the case with directions to enter judgment for the District of Columbia. *fn2


Shortly after 11:00 a.m. on February 1, 1985, David Carmichael and Henry Johnson were attacked as they entered a recreation yard in the maximum security facility at Lorton. Approximately eight other inmates took part in the assault, which resulted in two stab wounds to Carmichael and three to Johnson. Both men required immediate surgery, and both spent over two weeks in the hospital. Undisputed evidence showed that the injuries were caused by prison-made weapons known as "shanks." *fn3 While only two shanks were recovered after the assault, appellees testified that all of their assailants had contraband weapons of some type.

Appellees called James E. Murphy as their only expert witness. Mr. Murphy, who had held several positions with the United States Bureau of Prisons and in the private sector as a consultant over a period of thirty-two years, was accepted by the court as an expert in the field of penology. Murphy testified that the District was negligent because it failed adequately to control contraband weapons within the maximum security prison at Lorton. He specifically referred to the monthly logs of recovered contraband for January and February 1985. These reports revealed that five sharp instrument -- three shanks, one straight razor, and a flair of scissors -- were recovered from inmates during January and that two shanks were recovered in February. *fn4 In forming his opinion that "there was obviously a failure to control contraband," Murphy said that he relied on the monthly logs, on appellees' testimony that all of their assailants had weapons, and on unspecified standards promulgated by the American Correctional Association (ACA) and the District's own regulations, as well as his own considerable experience with prisons around the country. Murphy also described procedures used to restrict contraband in the federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, where he had once served as associate warden, *fn5 and he noted that "it is not uncommon on my visits [to Lorton] and in talking with employees of the place . . . that the metal detectors are out of order, [and that there are no] safety vestibules in the cell blocks."

After the presentation of the plaintiffs' case, counsel for the District moved for a directed verdict, noting that "the plaintiffs have not presented evidence that [the duty owed] by the District of Columbia has been breached." At the end of the trial, before the jury began its deliberations, counsel again moved for a directed verdict, arguing that the expert had failed to state the basis for his assertion that the discovery of five potential weapons in January and four potential weapons in February (the two listed in the logs and the two recovered from the assailants) was indicative of an excessive number of contraband weapons in the system. Counsel asserted, "I never got any clear indication from Mr. Murphy as to exactly what would be excessive in a prison defined as a maximum security facility." After the jury's verdict, the District moved unsuccessfully for a judgment n.o.v., again drawing attention to the insufficiency of the expert's testimony. *fn6


When a District of Columbia prisoner is assaulted by fellow prisoners, the District is not ipso facto liable for the resulting injuries. The injured inmate must show both that the District breached its duty to protect him from harm and that his injuries were a proximate result of that breach. Haith v. District of Columbia, 526 A.2d 17, 19 (D.C. 1987). Furthermore, as this court has pointed out:

The question of whether prison officials acted reasonably to secure the safety of an inmate is not one within the realm of the everyday experiences of a lay person. The reasonably prudent juror cannot be expected to appreciate the ramifications of prison security as well as the parallel considerations involving the safekeeping of prisoners, and therefore, whether, under given circumstances, reasonable care was exercised. . . . Thus, expert testimony or supporting evidence is necessary to establish that standard.

Hughes v. District of Columbia, 425 A.2d 1299, 1303 (D.C. 1981) (citation omitted). Given the facts of this case and the claim of negligence made by appellees, expert testimony was essential. Appellees sought to meet their burden under Hughes by offering the testimony of James Murphy. After being accepted as an expert in penology, Mr. Murphy stated that in his opinion appellees' injuries were caused by the District's negligent control of contraband weapons in the maximum security prison at Lorton. The issue before us is whether Murphy's opinion was legally sufficient to enable the jury to find negligence. We hold that it was not.

In a case such as this, as in any negligence action, "he plaintiff must establish by competent evidence a standard of care; that the defendant violated that standard; and that such violation proximately caused injury to the plaintiff." Id. at 1302 (citation omitted). When an expert's testimony is required, the expert must articulate and refer to a standard of care by which the defendant's actions can be measured. Id. at 1303; accord, Toy v. District of Columbia, 549 A.2d 1, 6 (D.C. 1988); District of Columbia v. Peters, 527 A.2d 1269, 1273 (D.C. 1987); District of Columbia v. Davis, 386 A.2d 1195, 1200 (D.C. 1978). The failure to prove a standard of care is fatal because, in order to recover damages for negligence, "the plaintiff must prove that the defendant deviated from the applicable standard of care." Toy, supra, 549 A.2d at 6; accord, Hughes, supra, 425 A.2d at 1303 ...

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