Collins v. Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115 (1992)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the fifth circuit

No. 90-1279. Argued November 5, 1991—Decided February 26, 1992

Larry Collins, an employee in respondent city's sanitation department, died of asphyxia after entering a manhole to unstop a sewer line. Petitioner, his widow, brought this action under 42 U. S. C. 1983, alleging, inter alia, that Collins had a right under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "to be free from unreasonable risks of harm . . . and . . . to be protected from the [city's] custom and policy of deliberate indifference toward [its employees'] safety"; that the city had violated that right by following a custom and policy of not training its employees about the dangers of working in sewers and not providing safety equipment and warnings; and that the city had systematically and intentionally failed to provide the equipment and training required by a Texas statute. The District Court dismissed the complaint on the ground that it did not allege a constitutional violation. Without reaching the question whether the city had violated Collins' constitutional rights, the Court of Appeals affirmed on the theory that there had been no "abuse of governmental power," which the court found to be a necessary element of a 1983 action.

Held: Because a city's customary failure to train or warn its employees about known hazards in the workplace does not violate the Due Process Clause, 1983 does not provide a remedy for a municipal employee who is fatally injured in the course of his employment as a result of the city's failure. Pp. 119-130. (a) This Court's cases do not support the Court of Appeals' reading of 1983 as requiring an abuse of governmental power separate and apart from the proof of a constitutional violation. Contrary to that court's analysis, neither the fact that Collins was a government employee nor the characterization of the city's deliberate indifference to his safety as something other than an "abuse of governmental power" is a sufficient reason for refusing to entertain petitioner's federal claim under 1983. Proper analysis requires that two issues be separated when a 1983 claim is asserted against a municipality: (1) whether plaintiff's harm was caused by a constitutional violation, and (2) if so, whether the city is responsible for that violation. Pp. 119-120. (b) It is assumed for the purpose of decision that the complaint's use of the term "deliberate indifference" to characterize the city's failure to


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