U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Court Revives Civil Rights Case Over Trooper Killed in Training

Firearms instructor Richard Schroeter didn't check to see if his gun was loaded, then accidentally shot and killed Trooper David Kedra during routine training.

Schroeter pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment, and Kedra's mother sued for civil rights violations. She alleged that Schroeter subjected her son to a state-created danger, but a trial judge said the instructor was entitled to qualified immunity.

In Kedra v. Schroeter, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The plaintiff may soon have her day in court, but one judge said the case may have long-term impact.

Qualified Immunity

The trial judge had dismissed the case based on immunity, saying that Joan Kedra had not alleged enough facts that Schroeter was "actually aware that his conduct carried a substantial risk of harm."

The appeals court majority said the complaint supported a "reasonable inference" that Schroeter knew the risk, so it was enough to claim a state-created danger. However, Judge D. Michael Fisher was concerned about the breadth of the majority decision.

Schroeter conceded he acted recklessly when he pleaded guilty to endangerment, but that was not the same as violating Kedra's civil rights. The bigger issue, the judge said in his concurring opinion, is how the courts have expanded substantive due process.

"In my mind, we have gradually expanded substantive due process protections to cases where
they should not apply by tortifying the Constitution and chipping away at the standards necessary to show deliberate indifference," he said.

Substantive Due Process

Fisher said the courts are trending towards turning "deliberate indifference" into "negligence" when finding liability for civil rights violations. He said not every tort committed by a state representative is a constitutional violation.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not adopted the state-created danger theory, but Fisher said it may be time. He said the Third Circuit should re-evaluate.

"Given that our substantive due process doctrine has gradually lowered the bar for bringing a state created danger claim, it may be time for this full Court to reexamine the doctrine," he said.

Kevin R. Bradford, of the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, is considering whether to challenge the decision. Plaintiff's counsel Michael J. Quirk said the Third Circuit "got all the qualified immunity issues exactly right."

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