A federal judge has dismissed part of a lawsuit filed against the South Dakota Department of Corrections following the death of Correctional Officer Ron ‘RJ’ Johnson.
Johnson's wife, Lynette, sued the DOC after her husband was murdered by two inmates during a failed escape attempt in April of 2011.
The lawsuit alleges that DOC officials inappropriately transferred Rodney Berget and Eric Robert out of a maximum security unit and gave them jobs that allowed them to move around the prison. Lynette Johnson argues the move also allowed the two inmates to murder her husband.
But Judge Lawrence Piersol says those actions don't meet the high federal burden necessary to hold the Department of Corrections accountable in federal court.
"Most of the defendants’ (DOC) actions and decisions are too far removed in time to have put Ronald Johnson at a significant risk of immediate and proximate harm,” Piersol wrote in the May 15 decision.
Berget and Robert stole Johnson’s uniform and then tried to walk out of the South Dakota State Penitentiary as part of the failed April 12, 2011, escape.
Both Berget and Robert were maximum security inmates but were not being housed in the maximum security Jameson Annex at the time. Piersol does acknowledge in his decision that DOC officials failed to properly document the transfer of both inmates from the maximum security unit. But Piersol says moving Berget and Robert into the main prison and giving them jobs in the years leading up to the assault didn't pose an immediate risk to Johnson or other prison staff.
"Berget had worked as an orderly in various positions for many years without creating a known threat of harm to anyone," Piersol wrote.
In a statement released Tuesday, DOC officials said they look forward to the complete resolution of the lawsuit.
"The Department of Corrections respects the court's decision, for this part of this case. We will await the conclusion of all aspects of the lawsuit. We are continually mindful of the sacrifice that the Johnson family has made to the State of South Dakota,” Secretary of Corrections Denny Kaemingk said.
Five other claims including wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress remain and Lynette Johnson can continue to pursue those claims in state court.