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County Rebuffed in Suit Over Man's Death


Ruling that the county of Los Angeles can be held liable for an inmate's beating death, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday dealt a setback to the county's repeated efforts to deflect responsibility to the state in such cases.

The ruling came in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by the family of Mauricio Avalos, who died in 1999 after being attacked by cellmates at Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

The county had argued it was not liable because the sheriff, who runs the jails, is an agent of the state of California, not the county. The state is immune from federal civil rights lawsuits.

The 9th Circuit disagreed with the county, finding that the sheriff is an agent of the county in his administration of the jails under the state Constitution.

The ruling cited state law giving counties "ultimate power" over jails and requiring counties to indemnify sheriffs against monetary judgments.

In handing down the decision, the 9th Circuit noted that it has found in the past that the sheriff acts on behalf of the county, both in administering the jails and in some law enforcement functions, such as keeping the peace inside jails.

Lawyers for Los Angeles County said they have not yet decided whether to appeal.

Donald Karpel, who is representing Avalos' family, applauded the ruling. "I think the potential damages in this case could be significant," Karpel said. "They had prior notice of the danger to this prisoner and they refused to do anything about it."

Avalos was attacked in a six-person cell in a gang unit of the jail even after he told jail officials that he feared for his life and requested a transfer, according to Karpel.

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