509 U.S. 25 (1993), 91-1958, Helling v. McKinney

Docket Nº:No. 91-1958
Citation:509 U.S. 25, 113 S.Ct. 2475, 125 L.Ed.2d 22, 61 U.S.L.W. 4648
Party Name:HELLING et al. v. McKINNEY
Case Date:June 18, 1993
Court:United States Supreme Court

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509 U.S. 25 (1993)

113 S.Ct. 2475, 125 L.Ed.2d 22, 61 U.S.L.W. 4648

HELLING et al.



No. 91-1958

United States Supreme Court

June 18, 1993

Argued January 13, 1993



Respondent McKinney, a Nevada state prisoner, filed suit against petitioner prison officials, claiming that his involuntary exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) from his cellmate's and other inmates' cigarettes posed an unreasonable risk to his health, thus Subjecting him to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. A federal magistrate granted petitioners' motion for a directed verdict, but the Court of Appeals reversed in part, holding that McKinney should have been permitted to prove that his ETS exposure was sufficient to constitute an unreasonable danger to his future health. It reaffirmed its decision after this Court remanded for further consideration in light of Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294, in which the Court held that Eighth Amendment claims arising from confinement conditions not formally imposed as a sentence for a crime require proof of a subjective component, and that where the claim alleges inhumane confinement conditions or failure to attend to a prisoner's medical needs, the standard for that state of mind is the "deliberate indifference" standard of Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97. The Court of Appeals held that Seiter's subjective component did not vitiate that court's determination that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to house a prisoner in an environment exposing him to ETS levels that pose an unreasonable risk of harming his health—the objective component of McKinney's claim.


1. It was not improper for the Court of Appeals to decide the question whether McKinney's claim could be based on possible future effects of ETS. From its examination of the record, the court was apparently of the view that the claimed entitlement to a smoke-free environment subsumed the claim that ETS exposure could endanger one's future, not just current, health. Pp. 30'31.

2. By alleging that petitioners have, with deliberate indifference, exposed him to ETS levels that pose an unreasonable risk to his future health, McKinney has stated an Eighth Amendment claim on which relief could be granted. An injunction cannot be denied to inmates who plainly prove an unsafe, life-threatening condition on the ground that nothing yet has happened to them. See Hutto v. Finney, 437 U.S. 678,682. Thus, petitioners' central thesis that only deliberate indifference

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to inmates' current serious health problems is actionable is rejected. Since the Court cannot at this juncture rule that McKinney cannot possibly prove an Eighth Amendment violation based on ETS exposure, it also would be premature to base a reversal on the Federal Government's argument that the harm from ETS exposure is speculative, with no risk sufficiently grave to implicate a serious medical need, and that the exposure is not contrary to current standards of decency. On remand, the District Court must give McKinney the opportunity to prove his allegations, which will require that he establish both the subjective and objective elements necessary to prove an Eighth Amendment violation. With respect to the objective factor, he may have difficulty showing that he is being exposed to unreasonably high ETS levels, since he has been moved to a new prison and no longer has a cellmate who smokes, and since a new state prison policy restricts smoking to certain areas and makes reasonable efforts to respect nonsmokers' wishes with regard to double bunking. He must also show that the risk of which he complains is not one that today's society chooses to tolerate. The subjective factor, deliberate indifference, should be determined in light of the prison authorities' current attitudes and conduct, which, as evidenced by the new smoking policy, may have changed considerably since the Court of Appeals' judgment. The inquiry into this factor also would be an appropriate vehicle to consider arguments regarding the realities of prison administration. Pp. 31'37.

959 F.2d 853, affirmed and remanded.

White, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor, Kennedy, and Souter, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Scalia, J., joined, post, p. 37.

Frankie Sue Del Papa, Attorney General of Nevada, argued the cause for petitioners. With her on the briefs were Brooke A. Nielsen, Assistant Attorney General, David F. Sarnowski, Chief Deputy Attorney General, and Anne B. Cathcart, Deputy Attorney General.

Deputy Solicitor General Roberts argued the cause for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Starr, Assistant Attorney General Gerson, Edwin S. Kneedler, William Kanter, and Peter R. Maier.

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Cornish F. Hitchcock argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Alan B. Morrison.[*]

Justice White delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to decide whether the health risk posed by involuntary exposure of a prison inmate to environmental

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tobacco smoke (ETS) can form the basis of a claim for relief under the Eighth Amendment.


Respondent is serving a sentence of imprisonment in the Nevada prison system. At the time that this case arose, respondent was an inmate in the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, Nevada. Respondent filed a pro se civil rights complaint in United States District Court under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming as defendants the director of the prison, the warden, the associate warden, a unit counselor, and the manager of the prison store. The complaint, dated December 18, 1986, alleged that respondent was assigned to a cell with another inmate who smoked five packs of cigarettes a day. App. 6. The complaint also stated that cigarettes were sold to inmates without properly informing of the health hazards a nonsmoking inmate would encounter by sharing a room with an inmate who smoked, id., at 7-8, and that certain cigarettes burned continuously, releasing some type of chemical, id., at 9. Respondent complained of certain health problems allegedly caused by exposure to cigarette smoke. Respondent sought injunctive relief and damages for, inter alia, subjecting him to cruel and unusual punishment by jeopardizing his health. Id., at 14.

The parties consented to a jury trial before a Magistrate. The Magistrate viewed respondent's suit as presenting two issues of law: (1) whether respondent had a constitutional right to be housed in a smoke-free environment, and (2) whether defendants were deliberately indifferent to respondent's serious medical needs. App. to Pet. for Cert. D2-D3. The Magistrate, after citing applicable authority, concluded that respondent had no constitutional right to be free from cigarette smoke: While "society may be moving toward an opinion as to the propriety of non-smoking and a smoke-free environment," society cannot yet completely agree on the resolution of these issues. Id., at D3, D6. The Magistrate

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found that respondent nonetheless could state a claim for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs if he could prove the underlying facts, but held that respondent had failed to present evidence showing either medical problems that were traceable to cigarette smoke or deliberate indifference to them. Id., at D6-D10. The Magistrate therefore granted petitioners' motion for a directed verdict and granted judgment for the defendants. Id., at D10.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the Magistrate's grant of a directed verdict on the issue of deliberate indifference to respondent's immediate medical symptoms. McKinney v. Anderson, 924 F.2d 1500, 1512 (CA9 1991). The Court of Appeals also held that the defendants were immune from liability for damages since there was at the time no clearly established law imposing liability for exposing prisoners to ETS.[*] Although it agreed that respondent did not have a constitutional right to a smoke-free prison environment, the court held that respondent had stated a valid cause of action under the Eighth Amendment by alleging that he had been involuntarily exposed to levels of ETS that posed an unreasonable risk of harm to his future health. Id., at 1509. In support of this judgment, the court noticed scientific opinion supporting respondent's claim that sufficient exposure to ETS could endanger one's health. Id., at 1505-1507. The court also concluded that society's attitude had evolved to the point that involuntary exposure to unreasonably dangerous levels of ETS violated current standards of decency. Id., at 1508. The court therefore held that the Magistrate erred by directing a verdict without permitting respondent to prove that his exposure to ETS was sufficient to constitute an unreasonable danger to his future health.

Petitioners sought review in this Court. In the meantime, this Court had decided Wilson v. Seiter, 501 U.S. 294(1991), which held that, while the Eighth Amendment applies

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to conditions of confinement that are not formally imposed as a sentence for a crime, such claims require proof of a subjective component, and that where the claim alleges inhumane conditions of confinement or failure to attend to a prisoner's medical needs, the standard for that state of mind is the "deliberate indifference" standard of Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976). We granted certiorari in this case, vacated the judgment below, and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for further consideration in light of Seiter. 502 U.S. 903 (1991).

On remand, the Court of Appeals noted that Seiter added an...

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