WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that employees of the private prison operator Geo Group Inc cannot be sued in federal court by an inmate who claims they violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
By an 8-1 vote, the justices overturned a ruling by a U.S. appeals court in San Francisco that the lawsuit by inmate Richard Pollard could go forward in federal court.
The Supreme Court in a majority opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer agreed with the arguments by the five Geo employees and by the Obama administration that such claims for injuries should be brought under state, not federal, law.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that inmates cannot sue private prison companies over alleged constitutional violations, but had not previously decided if guards and other employees of the companies could be sued for damages in federal court.
There are currently more than 25,000 federal prisoners housed in 13 privately run detention facilities. Companies such as Geo operate the facilities under contract with the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Pollard fell and accidentally fractured both his elbows in 2001 while at a Geo-run federal facility in Taft, California.
He claimed in his lawsuit that GEO's employees forced him to wear a prison jumpsuit and a mechanical restraint device that caused him pain and that they did not provide him a splint and other necessary medical care.
The Supreme Court agreed to decide the case after conflicting appeals court rulings on the issue.
Breyer wrote in the majority opinion that state law would authorize adequate alternative damages providing both significant deterrence and compensation.
The Supreme Court case is Minneci v. Pollard, No 10-1104.
(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Philip Barbara)