Injured prison guard’s negligence claims are preempted by the Communications Act

Johnson v. Am. Towers, LLC, No. 13-1872 (4th Cir. Mar. 25, 2015).

Robert Johnson, a prison guard, was shot and injured at his home by a gunman. This gunman, it turns out, had been hired by a group of aggrieved inmates at Johnson’s prison. These inmates had used a cell phone to communicate with the hitman from prison.

Johnson and his wife have now sued several cell phone carriers and owners of cell towers under South Carolina law. They assert what is essentially a negligence claim. They allege that the defendants should have known that inmates at the prison were using their phones to communicate with outsiders, that this “created an unreasonable risk of harm to others,” and that the defendants should have done something to prevent this risk. 

After deciding that the federal courts have jurisdiction, the Fourth Circuit proceeds to the merits. It decides that the federal Communications Act preempts the Johnsons’ claims. It then goes on—gratuitously, it would seem—to hold that the Johnsons’ complaint was “implausible” under Twombly and Iqbal.