Oklahoma County Sheriff angry over appeals court reinstatement of lawsuit

Thursday, July 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said he is ``furious'' over a federal appeals court decision to reinstate a lawsuit alleging that he deliberately exposed employees and inmates at the county jail to health dangers.

In its decision on Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Whetsel put the inmates and workers in a hazardous situation by requiring them to paint patrol cars.

``That's the most outrageous decision I've heard,'' Whetsel said.

The 3-0 decision reverses a decision by Oklahoma City federal judge Robin Cauthron, who ruled in favor of the sheriff last year without a trial.

According to Cauthron, plaintiff David Sherwood had not established the existence of a constitutional right for his situation because he failed to identify conduct ``that is truly conscience shocking, a legal standard he must meet in alleging a violation of his constitutional civil rights.

But in a 14-page decision, the appellate judges disagreed.

Whetsel and his commanders ``ordered (Sherwood) to paint the vehicles using hazardous paint in a makeshift paint booth with no ventilation or other safety equipment,'' the judges wrote.

Sherwood ``was at risk of losing his job if he refused, despite clear information that the painting operation was in violation of law and in violation of state and federal safety regulations that had been brought to defendants' attention by the director of the Oklahoma County Health and Safety Department,'' the judges wrote.

Whetsel said there was no order for employees or inmates to paint the cars, but he declined to elaborate further.

Sherwood could not be immediately reached for comment. His attorney favors a jury trial on the matter.

The painting occurred in 1998 at the sheriff's training center in a semi-rural area of northeast Oklahoma County.

Sherwood is disabled from working, the judges said. They said he contracted occupational asthma, has difficulty in memory and concentration ``and painful, uncontrollable twitching spasms'' as a result of the painting.