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Justices Appear Skeptical of Claims in Liability Case

November 06, 1996|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The justices of the Supreme Court strongly disputed during an oral argument Tuesday that a county sheriff's department should be held liable for injuries inflicted by a new officer who had been hired despite his criminal record.

If a department has a pattern of hiring qualified officers, "why should a single deviation be considered an unconstitutional policy?" asked Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"This was a single departure in favor of a relative," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said of the decision to hire an officer who was the son of the sheriff's nephew.

The skeptical tone of the questions suggest the high court will overturn a $711,000 jury verdict won by a Texas woman who was pulled from her car and hurled to the pavement by a temperamental, untrained officer. The impact seriously damaged her knees, resulted in five operations and left her with more than $130,000 in medical bills.

A jury in Sherman, Texas, about 50 miles north of Dallas, found the county liable for the damages because Officer Stacy Burns was hired despite a long criminal record. At trial, the sheriff admitted that he had not bothered to read through Burns' long "rap sheet" before hiring him.

The court's conservative justices have resisted allowing local governments to be forced to pay damages for the misconduct of their employees. Unless a government agency is shown to have a policy or pattern of violating citizen's rights, it should be shielded from damage claims, they said.

"All you have is a one-shot hiring decision here," said Justice Antonin Scalia.

The lawyer for plaintiff Jill Brown defended the jury verdict, pointing out that the sheriff had ignored Burns' criminal record.

"The red flags were there," said attorney Brian Serr, a Baylor University law professor. "Every city, county or school board should not have the right to knowingly, deliberately hire one bad apple. You don't get to hire one child molester and put him to work in an elementary school."

Defending the county, attorney Wallace B. Jefferson said that federal court juries should not be empowered to second-guess hiring decisions.

A ruling in the case of Bryan County, Okla. vs. Brown, 95-1100, can be expected in several months.

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