TOPEKA — The state of Kansas is not liable for the death of an elderly woman whose home was burglarized by an escaped prisoner, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Christopher Zorn, an inmate at Norton Correctional Facility, walked away from the prison while on work detail Sept. 16, 2008. He went to the home of Helen Keiswetter, 83, assaulted her, locked her in a closet and left, according to court documents. Injuries suffered in the assault led to her death months later.
Zorn later was arrested in Denver and pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery, aggravated escape from custody, aggravated battery and felony theft.
A district court and the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled the state wasn’t negligent in, and therefore not liable for, Zorn’s escape. Keiswetter’s heirs appealed the case to the Kansas Supreme Court, arguing guards shouldn’t have left Zorn unattended due to his “dangerous propensities” and history of violent behavior.
In a unanimous opinion Friday written by Chief Justice Lawton Nuss, the high court ruled prison employees are considered police and granted similar protection from liability.
“We conclude Keiswetter’s claim that the state failed to take reasonable care in preventing Zorn from escaping from custody and attacking Helen Keiswetter falls under the police protection exception to liability under the Kansas Tort Claims Act because it invokes the state’s ‘failure to provide, or the method of providing, police … protection,’” Nuss wrote.
The police protection exception in the law was established to protect cities from lawsuits claiming police departments should have sent more police cars to a crime scene or more fire trucks to a house fire.
In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in a Topeka case that such immunity cannot be applied when a government employee “breaches a specific duty to an individual rather than the public at large.”
Keiswetter’s family argued the prison guards owed a specific duty to Helen Keiswetter, an argument Nuss and the justices rejected Friday.
The Keiswetter case was argued March 9 during a rare evening session of the Supreme Court in Topeka High School as part of its traveling docket. It was only the second time in the state’s 155-year history the court met in a high school.