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Naki v. State

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 14, 2015

Peter K. Naki, Plaintiff,
v.
State of Hawaii, et al., Defendants.

ORDER

James A. Teillrorg Senior United States District Judge

Pending before the Court is Peter K. Naki’s (“Plaintiff’s”) Motion for Reconsideration (Doc. 131) pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) of the Court’s August 5, 2015, Order granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants Hawaii, State of, et al. (Doc. 127). The Court now rules on the motion.

I. Background

This matter arises out of injuries suffered by Plaintiff after he allegedly fell from the top bunk of his prison cell in Saguaro Correctional Center (“SCC”). (Doc. 127 at 1). Plaintiff alleges, among other claims, that Defendant[1] was negligent when it forced Plaintiff to use the top bunk in his cell without providing adequate safety measures and proper means to ascend to and descend from his bunk. (Doc. 39 at 7-8).

On August 5, 2015, the Court ruled on Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 108) and Motion to Exclude Plaintiff’s Human Factors Expert Joellen Gill. (Doc. 107). The Court found-with respect to Plaintiff’s proposed expert witness- that under Fed.R.Civ.P. 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), Ms. Gill’s proposed testimony was “unsupported by any reasoning, data, facts, principles, techniques, or methods, ” and would not be admitted. (Doc. 127 at 6). Turning to Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, the Court found that “under Arizona law, when ‘the alleged lack of care occurred during [a] professional or business activity, the plaintiff must present expert witness testimony’” to establish the requisite standard of care, (Doc. 127 at 9 (quoting St. Joseph’s Hosp. & Med. Ctr. v. Reserve Life Ins. Co., 742 P.2d 808, 816 (Ariz. 1987))), and that “[c]ourts have applied this principle to prison operations.” (Id. (citations omitted)). Absent Plaintiff’s ability to proffer expert testimony, Defendant was entitled to summary judgment on the negligence claim. (Id.). The Court also granted Defendant summary judgment on Plaintiff’s Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012) claim. (Id. at 10).

On August 19, 2015, Plaintiff filed a motion that the Court characterized as a Rule 59(e) motion to provide relief from a final judgment.[2] (Doc. 131). Although Plaintiff had simultaneously filed a notice of appeal, the Court retained jurisdiction over the matter under Fed. R. App. Proc. 4(a)(4)(B)(i). (Doc. 134 at 2). On September 11, 2015, the Court issued an Order that acknowledged it had “recently held that a claim for negligence against prison officials in the failure to provide medical attention in some circumstances does not require expert testimony as to the standard of care, ” and ordered Defendant to respond to Plaintiff’s motion and address whether the issues surrounding the negligence claim fell within “the common understanding of jurors.” (Doc. 134 at 5). Having reviewed the parties’ filings, the Court now addresses the motion.

II. Legal Standard

“Although Rule 59(e) permits a district court to reconsider and amend a previous order, the rule offers an ‘extraordinary remedy, to be used sparingly in the interests of finality and conservation of judicial resources.’” Kona Enters. v. Estate of Bishop, 229 F.3d 877, 890 (9th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted). “[A] motion for reconsideration should not be granted, absent highly unusual circumstances, unless the district court is presented with newly discovered evidence, committed clear error, or if there is an intervening change in the controlling law.” Id. (quoting 389 Orange Street Partners, 179 F.3d 656, 665 (9th Cir. 1999)). “A Rule 59(e) motion may not be used to raise arguments or present evidence for the first time when they could reasonably have been raised earlier in the litigation.” Id. (emphasis in original).

III. Analysis

Plaintiff has not brought to the Court’s attention newly discovered evidence pertaining to his case, and has not argued that there has been an intervening change in the controlling law. Rather, Plaintiff contends that the Court committed clear error in two respects: (1) the Court “overlooked the common law standard of care, ” because “[i]t is not necessary to have an expert witness to establish the standard of care in prisons”; (Doc. 131 at 2); and (2) the Court ignored Plaintiff’s argument that his negligence claim was also based on Defendant repeatedly instructing Plaintiff to climb on to his bunk using unsecured “lockers” stacked on top of one another. (Id. at 4). The Court analyzes each argument in turn.

A. The Necessity of Expert Testimony to Establish the Standard of Care

The Court first considers Plaintiff’s argument that under Arizona law a proffer of expert testimony is not necessary to establish the standard of care for a correctional facility. As stated in the August 5, 2015 Order: in ordinary negligence actions, “the standard imposed is that of the conduct of a reasonably prudent man under the circumstances.” Bell v. Maricopa Medical Ctr., 755 P.2d 1180, 1182 (Ariz.Ct.App. 1988) (citing Paul v. Holcomb, 442 P.2d 559, 561 (Ariz. 1968)). (Doc. 127 at 9). “In such cases, it is not necessary for the plaintiff to present evidence to establish the standard of care because the jury can rely on its own experience in determining whether the defendant acted with reasonable care under the circumstances.” Id. (citing Rossell v. Volkswagen of Am., 709 P.2d 517, 523-24 (Ariz. 1985)). But under Arizona law, when “the alleged lack of care occurred during [a] professional or business activity, the plaintiff must present expert witness testimony as to the care and competence prevalent in the business or profession.” St. Josephs Hosp. & Med. Ctr., 742 P.2d at 816. A number of courts have applied this standard to correctional facilities.[3]

Plaintiff argues that Ballesteros, 2013 Ariz.App. Unpub. LEXIS 19, at *10, stands for the principle that under Arizona law, “in prisons, the standard [of care] is that of a reasonably prudent person and it is not necessary for the plaintiff to present evidence to establish the standard of care . . . .’” (Doc. 131 at 2 (citation omitted)). The Court disagrees. Ignoring the unpublished status of the opinion, the Ballesteros court did not articulate such a broad, sweeping holding. Rather, the court-after acknowledging that generally “the issue of inmate safety is not ‘within the realm of the everyday experiences of a lay person, ’” 2013 Ariz.App. Unpub. LEXIS 19, at *10 (quoting Hughes, 425 A.2d at 1303)-concluded that “inmate access to medical care, after an appropriate request, is within a lay person’s realm of experience.” Id. Thus, “under the circumstances of [the] case, the State and its prisons officials [were not] subject to a professional standard of care . . . .” Id. The court reasoned that because the plaintiff was “experiencing influenzalike symptoms” and “did not receive medical evaluation or treatment” for over a week despite having “repeatedly requested medical attention, ” id. at *2, “[t]he State’s management of prisoner medical care and its failure to respond to Ballesteros’s repeated requests for care [were] not factual issues outside the common understanding of jurors.” Id. at *8-*9. The court’s holding comports with ample Arizona precedent recognizing that expert testimony is necessary when “the jury [cannot] rely on its own experience in determining whether the defendant acted with reasonable care under the circumstances, ” Bell, 755 P.2d at 1182 (citation omitted). Consequently, Plaintiff’s argument fails.

The Court’s inquiry continues, however. As noted supra, the September 11, 2015, Order explained that this Court recently held in Reidhead v. Arizona, No. 2:12-CV-12-00089-PHX-JAT, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85626, at *16-*18 (D. Ariz. June 24, 2014)- that at least in some circumstances-expert witness testimony is not required to establish the standard of care in a negligence claim against prison officials. (Doc. 134 at 5). Having reviewed the parties’ filings and requisite case law, the Court concludes that Plaintiff’s negligence claim is not within the “common understanding of jurors, ...


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