Can “Failure to Train” Lead to Litigation?

By John K. Murphy
One thing about attorneys, there are more than enough issues to keep us busy and sometimes awake at night, but we continue to search for the most controversial and esoteric issues. For example, while conducting research for Training Officer Liabilities for FDIC, a fellow attorney referred me to a case that serves as an example of potential liability on municipalities and other governmental entities for failure to adequately train its employees. Although the case in question involves a police department, there are possible ramifications to consider that may affect the fire service as well.
The case is City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U. S. 378 (1989), and its genesis began in 1978 when Ms. Geraldine Harris was arrested by officers of the Canton Police Department and brought to the police station in a police vehicle. When she arrived at the station, Ms. Harris was found sitting on the floor of the police vehicle. When asked if she needed medical attention, she responded incoherently. After she was brought inside the station for processing, Ms. Harris slumped to the floor on two occasions, and the officers finally left her on the floor to prevent her from falling again. During this time in police custody, she was not provided medical attention. After her release from custody, her family, concerned enough about her condition, had her transported by ambulance to a local hospital, where she was treated and diagnosed with several emotional ailments; she was subsequently hospitalized and treated.
Some time later, she filed suit seeking, among other things, to hold the city liable under 42 U.S.C. § 19831 for its violation of her right, under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, to receive necessary medical attention while in police custody. Although she fell down several times and was incoherent following her arrest by officers, the officers summoned no medical assistance for her.
The jury ruled in her favor on this claim on the basis of evidence indicating that a city regulation gave shift commanders sole discretion to determine whether a detainee required medical care and suggesting that commanders were not given any special training to help them determine when to summon such care for an injured detainee. Both the district court, in rejecting the city’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), and the court of appeals, in ruling that there had been no error in submitting the “failure to train” claim to the jury, held that, under circuit precedent, a municipality is liable for failure to train its police force where the plaintiff proves that the municipality acted recklessly, intentionally, or with gross negligence, and that the lack of training was so reckless or grossly negligent that deprivation of persons’ constitutional rights was substantially certain to result.
Based on this theory and after proceeding through the state courts, including the 6th Circuit Court2, who affirmed an aspect of the district court’s analysis in holding that: “a municipality is liable for failure to train its police force, [where] the plaintiff . . . prove[s] that the municipality acted recklessly, intentionally, or with gross negligence” and that an additional prerequisite of this theory of liability was that the plaintiff must prove “that the lack of training was so reckless or grossly negligent that deprivations of persons’ constitutional rights were substantially certain to result.”
There are several other rulings in this case that affected the outcome of the municipal liability, but it is interesting to know this “bright line” has not yet been applied to a municipal fire department. However, considering the current budget-cut fervor, we may be seeing more of this type of litigation.
The court of appeals ultimately reversed the district court’s decision, but opined, among other things, on the gross negligence standard:
The inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for §1983 liability only where the failure to train in a relevant respect amounts to deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of persons with whom the police come into contact. In contrast to the Court of Appeals’ overly broad rule, this “deliberate indifference” standard is most consistent with the rule of Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U. S. 658, 436 U. S. 694 (1978) that a city is not liable under § 1983 unless a municipal “policy” or “custom” is the moving force behind the constitutional violation, and held that the inadequacy of police training may serve as the basis for §1983 liability only where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the police come into contact.
A similar decision by the 11th Circuit Court3 in Florida addresses a very common problem with failure-to-train issues–an absence of prior incidents necessary to put governments on notice of the need for more or different training. In Gold v. City of Miami, 151 F.3d 1346 (1998), an individual named Gold was arrested for disorderly conduct after he repeatedly complained to police officers who had not given a ticket to someone who had parked illegally in a handicapped space. In §1983 litigation that ensued, the city of Miami conceded that the arrest was without probable cause and following a jury verdict in favor of Gold, the city appealed on several issues, including Gold’s allegation of inadequate training of police officers by the city.
After reviewing the pertinent case law and the applicable standards, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that Gold had not presented evidence sufficient to show deliberate indifference on the part of the city by the fact that Gold had presented absolutely no evidence of prior similar incidents as would have been necessary to show that the city should have known of the need for more or different training; secondly, the court rejected Gold’s assertion that he did not need to show prior incidents, because the need for training other than that provided by Miami was not “obvious.”
Under this prong, the Eleventh Circuit cited to a Supreme Court decision Brown v. Bryan County Board of Commissioners, 520 U.S. 397, 117 S.Ct. 1382 (1997) as holding that the only situation in which the need for training has been deemed “obvious” is in the use of firearms.
Application for the Fire Service?
In this intensely complex ruling, how does this rule apply to the fire service? The first item is, do not to violate an individual’s constitutional rights of Due Process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Can these be related to a failure to respond, failure to treat, or failure to transport your patients? Looking at one of the standards determined by the Eleventh Circuit is; “prior notice of an incident required” and that a need for training becomes “obvious.” What does that exactly mean?
As it applies to the fire service, there is no case law to determine those definitions, but you can bet a member of your community who is aggrieved, coupled with a smart attorney, will attempt to define those terms as it applies to your fire service. Although failure to train is but one subset of governmental liability litigation, it arises with frequency as a theory for redressing constitutional wrongs, and the fire service needs to closely evaluate its obligations related to training for their firefighters.
A suggestion to avoid the possibly of a §1983 liability is to closely review your training curriculum and ensure that you are doing all that is possible to provide training to your employees on a regular schedule coupled with a periodic analysis of emerging needs in your community for new hazards, new training requirements, and new equipment on the market developed to address those emerging training factors. Will this prevent litigation? Probably not, but it puts you in a better position for an affirmative defense in that you analyzed your department’s services and delivered the appropriate training and there was no depravation of an individual’s rights in our ever-changing environment. 

JOHN K. MURPHY, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO, retired as a deputy fire chief after 32 years of career service; is a practicing attorney; and is a frequent speaker on legal and medical issues at local, state, and national fire service conferences. He is a frequent contributing author to Fire Engineering and a podcast host.


1. Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides, in the applicable part, that: “Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage … subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress….” 

2. Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee. 

3. Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.


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