The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has dismissed a wrongful death claim against a municipality, police department, and school district based upon allegations that these parties created dangerous circumstances at a street crossing that led to a minor’s death. Estate of Viola v. Township of Bensalem concerned the death of a high school student while crossing a street on his way to a school bus stop. Among other claims, the student’s parents and his estate brought a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 under a state-related danger theory. In support of this claim, the plaintiffs contended that the municipal defendants violated the substantive Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by establishing the bus stop at a busy intersection, by failing to repair a broken pushbutton at the crossing, and by failing to provide a crossing guard at the time that the student crossed the street.
The Court began its analysis by noting that while the Due Process Clause does not impose an affirmative duty on the part of governmental entities to protect citizens from the acts of private individuals, an exception to this rule exists if state entities create or enhance a danger that deprives an individual of due process. In order to prevail on such a theory, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: (1) the harm caused was “foreseeable and fairly direct,” (2) the state actor acted with “a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience,” (3) the plaintiff “was a foreseeable victim, or a member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the state’s actions, and (4) the state actor “affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to the plaintiff or that rendered him more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all.”
The Court determined that neither the second nor the fourth factors were satisfied in this case. The Court observed that behavior following deliberation that “shocks the conscience” typically requires “conscious disregard of a substantial risk of serious harm.” As there were no allegations that the municipal entities were aware that the location of the accident was particularly dangerous, that the entities had received complaints regarding the safety of the bus stop, or that the entities were aware that the pushbutton was broken, the Court found that the plaintiffs did not allege conduct that could be deemed to “shock the conscience.” The Court also found that the fourth factor was not satisfied, because the plaintiffs did not raise allegations of affirmative acts specifically directed at the plaintiff.
The Court therefore dismissed the plaintiffs’ § 1983 claim. As the remaining claims were brought under state law, the Court remanded the matter to state court.
Viola reflects that § 1983 claims based upon allegations of a “state-created danger” must satisfy a much higher standard than mere negligence. As set forth by the Eastern District in its opinion, nothing less than allegations of reckless affirmative acts specifically directed at a plaintiff may prove sufficient to support such claims.