Ninth Circuit Denies Immunity to California Officials Who Caused 28 Deaths at San Quentin State Prison

Court rules that federal lawsuit seeking justice for Joaquin Diaz will move forward.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has denied immunity for eleven California officials responsible for causing a massive COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin prison in 2020 that sickened 2,500 people and killed at least 28 in what then-Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) called “the worst prison health screw-up in state history.” Among those lives lost was Joaquin Diaz, a 79-year-old model inmate who was nearing the end of his prison term and looking forward to reuniting with his wife and children.

In June 2021, HSRD Partners Dan Stormer, Brian Olney, and David Clay Washington, and attorneys Salomon Zavala and Do Kim, sued the senior officials at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and California Correctional Healthcare Services (CCHCS) responsible for the outbreak along with the agencies themselves. The legal team represents the family of Joaquin Diaz, who was just one year from his release date when he became infected and died in the massive COVID-19 outbreak caused by reckless and indifferent prison administrators.

On May 30, 2020, the defendants disregarded CDCR’s own COVID mitigation directives and packed buses with untested incarcerated people at CIM state prison, which was in the midst of a COVID outbreak. The defendants then transferred these people to San Quentin, which had no recorded COVID cases at that time. Instead of isolating and testing the CIM transferees, prison officials forced them to share housing alongside the elderly and medically vulnerable even while they failed to provide masks and other PPE to control the spread of disease.

In an attempt to escape any accountability for their actions, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss lawsuits filed by the Diaz family and the families of other victims on the grounds of qualified immunity and immunity under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act, which affords medical providers a limited immunity from suits arising from the “administration and use” of certain pandemic medical products, such as masks and vaccines. On July 15, 2022, the District Court denied the defendants’ motions. The defendants then appealed the District Court’s order to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In essence, the defendants asked the Ninth Circuit to grant them immunity for their wrongful acts by (1) ruling that incarcerated people do not have a “clearly established right” to be protected from communicable diseases while in state custody, and (2) broadening the limited scope of the PREP Act to not only immunize medical providers for certain harms arising from pandemic medical products, but also immunize prison officials for failing to use pandemic products. In a written order, the three-judge panel affirmed the District Court’s denial, holding that Defendants are not entitled to PREP Act immunity and affirming that recklessly exposing incarcerated people to communicable diseases violates their Eighth Amendment constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The lawsuit will now return to the District Court.

According to HSRD Partner David Clay Washington, “It is saddening to see the State of California attempt to avoid accountability after all the death and despair it put these 28 families through. The State of California must be held accountable for the deaths it caused. This ruling, alongside the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Polanco v. Diaz, 76 F.4th 918 (9th Cir. 2023), ensures that these families can continue to fight to honor their loved ones’ memories.”

Attorney Brian Olney said, “The courts have spoken. The officials who caused this tragic loss of life must face accountability for their actions. Our clients look forward to their day in court.”

Attorney Salomon Zavala said, "I applaud the court’s decision to allow Mr. Diaz’s case to continue. We look forward to seeking justice for our client’s family and holding defendants responsible for their reckless actions. Our prison system must respect the dignity and rights of incarcerated people especially when they are most vulnerable."

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