Improper work caused injury, former McNeil Island inmate claims

Staff writerJune 12, 2014 

A former prison inmate contends in a recently filed lawsuit that he suffered a severe leg injury three years ago while performing unauthorized personal work for the assistant fire chief at the state’s Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island.

Christopher English seeks unspecified damages from the state departments of Corrections and Social and Health Services to compensate him for his physical injuries as well as post-traumatic stress he suffers as a result on the incident, the lawsuit states.

Tacoma attorney Jack Connelly filed the suit on English’s behalf last week in Pierce County Superior Court.

“This case involves the DOC’s failure to protect an inmate who was subject to DOC’s care, custody and control from exploitation and injury by a DSHS supervisor,” the lawsuit states. “The DSHS supervisor improperly used his power, position and authority, without authorization, to direct a group of DOC inmates … to perform dangerous activities for the supervisor’s personal benefit and personal gain.”

Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke declined to comment on the case, citing the agency’s policy regarding pending litigation.

DSHS spokesman John Wiley said that agency had not yet been served, so he, too, would have no comment on the lawsuit.

“However, allegations of employee misconduct are taken seriously by DSHS,” Wiley said. “When made aware of such allegations, DSHS investigates and takes appropriate action.”

English was serving a prison term in 2011 when he was assigned to a work for DSHS as part of the fire crew at the SCC, the state’s center for dangerous sex offenders, under a special arrangement between the two agencies.

In April of that year, Dennis Buss was appointed assistant fire chief at the McNeil Island station. He supervised English and other inmate workers as part of his duties.

Two months later, according to English’s lawsuit and state records, Buss took a personal interest in a travel trailer that had been left behind on the island.

“He made a decision that he could order the inmate labor force to take the trailer apart and help him convert and steal it,” the lawsuit states.

The inmates felt obliged to do what Buss told them, the suit contends.

To complete the job, Buss also made use of state-owned equipment, including a fire station truck and power equipment, the lawsuit states. One of those tools allegedly was a Warthog saw firefighters use to cut through wooden roofs to gain access to fires.

“This saw blade was not designed to be used, and not supposed to be used, to cut through the metal and aluminum material necessary to cut the trailer apart,” the lawsuit states. “DSHS supervisor Buss acted as though he had free labor which was required to follow his whims and orders and that their lives were less significant than his desire to convert state property to his own personal use.”

The inmates were cutting apart the trailer when “the powerful Warthog saw backfired and sliced deeply into a large portion of Mr. English’s left calf, almost severing his leg and requiring him to be airlifted to Harborview Medical Center for emergency medical treatment,” according to the suit.

The injuries required “extensive hospitalization and rehabilitation,” the lawsuit states.

Buss, who was hired by DSHS in 2001, was fired May 24, 2012, after an investigation, Wiley said.

He also was investigated for state ethics violations, according to records of the Washington State Executive Ethics Board. In March 2013, the board found Buss had violated three ethics laws, including using state property for his own benefit. It fined him $9,000, payable in monthly increments of $100, the records show.

Buss signed the findings but added a disclaimer.

“I do not agree with all the findings of fact, nor am I admitting any guilt,” he wrote. “I’m accepting this settlement in the interest of concluding this matter expeditiously.”

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644

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