Jail is a Dangerous Place

Stephanie Krug, Senior Litigation Specialist, Safety Engineering Consulting & Claims Management

September, 2014

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently noted that "jails are dangerous places."

On October 27, 2009, Kenneth King was pulled over for failing to have his headlights on. He provided the Anderson County deputy with his driver’s license but was unable to produce the vehicle’s registration. The officer asked Mr. King to step out of the car, at which time he was placed under arrest for driving with a suspended license. Mr. King was transported to the Anderson County Jail where he was booked and placed into a medium security unit. He remained there throughout the evening without incident.

The following morning, Kenneth King attended his arraignment. The judge ordered a pretrial release and Mr. King was returned to the Anderson County jail where he awaited processing. He was returned to the cell where he had previously spent the night.

A pretrial release officer arrived at the jail three hours and forty-five minutes later to process Mr. King’s paperwork. During that time, Mr. King fell asleep and was assaulted by another inmate. In the attack, he sustained a fractured nose and severe damage to his right eye.

On August 31, 2010, approximately one year after the incident, counsel for Mr. King filed a lawsuit against Anderson County seeking $500,000 in damages. The complaint, filed in Circuit Court, focused on two types of allegations. The first was negligence, brought under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA). This type of allegation is considered a state law claim. The second was for the alleged violations of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. These are typically considered federal law claims.

The TNRMT retained attorney Arthur Knight to represent Anderson County. Mr. Knight wisely removed the Circuit Court (State Court) case to the United States District Court (Federal Court). This was done because it is generally held that federal justices are better qualified to grasp the complex issues contained within federal law claims. Mr. King’s lawyer objected to this removal. The judge compromised by remanding the state law claims to the circuit court and keeping the federal claims under his jurisdiction. Over the ensuing four years, Anderson County and its Sheriff’s Department were aggressively defended by Mr. Knight and the TNRMT.

The state law claims of negligence were addressed first. Following a bench trial, the judge ruled in favor of Mr. King. He opined Anderson County was negligent for delaying Mr. King’s release and awarded the plaintiff $170,000.

Immediately following this verdict, Anderson County filed an appeal. Surprisingly, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision. These troubling rulings caused concerns of creating “bad case law.” The TNRMT and Mr. Knight determined that an appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court was warranted.

In response, Mr. King’s attorney argued that Anderson County had an obligation to protect individuals incarcerated in its jail. As a result, Anderson County was negligent for failing to protect Mr. King against harm from an assault. Anderson County countered, arguing the county should only be held liable if they were on notice that an attack on Mr. King was foreseeable.

In addressing this question, the Tennessee Supreme Court noted that jail officials are not “insurers” of safety for all inmates. Therefore, jail employees are not liable for every injury an inmate incurs while in custody.

The Supreme Court further remarked that jails are dangerous places. Fights occur even if inmates are supervised and properly classified. Most fights occur on a spur of the moment basis. The fact that spontaneous fights occur does not make jail officials liable for injuries incurred in those conflicts. Instead, jail officials are only liable if they have actual or constructive notice that a particular inmate is in danger of being injured. The danger must be actual, not just theoretical, and must be of the type that is probable.

The Court explained that notice exists if:

Notice does NOT exist if:

The Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately ruled the County had no reason to know Mr. King would be assaulted. Mr. King never complained to officials about his cell mate. The assailant had no record of jail violence and there were no incidents the previous evening among the inmates. Consequently, the Court found in favor of Anderson County.

Following this victory, Mr. King and his attorney agreed to dismiss the federal claims alleging his civil rights were violated. On April 23, 2014, a Stipulation of Dismissal was filed with the United States District Court.

After years of hard fought litigation, Anderson County and its Sheriff’s Department were finally vindicated.

We would like to extend a special thanks to Anderson County for their cooperation and support throughout this litigation.

As we are all aware, litigation has become increasingly prevalent in our society. Many of you have experienced this firsthand. In response, your TNRMT team readily enlists the region’s most skilled legal professionals to defend your agencies and protect your employees’ reputations. Our mutual goal is to achieve the most desired outcome. Some cases need to be settled, while others must be tried.

We would also like to thank all of you for trusting TNRMT to handle these matters on your behalf.

Note: It you would like to read the Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling, it can be found on here.