Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Inmate Assault is not Foreseeable Per Se


Should a county bear any financial responsibility when it fails to release a jail inmate on time and the inmate gets injured in an altercation when he should no longer have been in jail and therefore not in the position to be harmed.

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently decided such a case. King, an inmate of the Anderson County Detention Center, sued following an attack by another inmate in which he sustained injuries including an eye injury that required surgery and a broken nose.  He maintained he should not have been in jail at the time of the attack.

The trial court determined that both the Plaintiff Inmate and the Defendant County were responsible for Plaintiff’s injuries and assigned 45% fault to the Plaintiff for instigating the fight and 55% fault to the Defendant for failing to timely release the Plaintiff. The Court of Appeals upheld the judgment of the trial court. The Defendant County appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In King v. Anderson County, E2012-00386-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Nov. 21, 2013) the Supreme Court analyzed whether the Defendant’s failure to timely release the Plaintiff was the proximate cause of the Plaintiff’s injuries.

The court began its analysis by reminding us of the difference between causation-in-fact and proximate cause. Causation-in-fact is “but-for” causation – the injury would not have happened “but-for” the defendant’s negligent conduct. Proximate cause, on the other hand, focuses on legal responsibility and whether an actor who caused an injury should be held responsible for it. Tennessee Courts use a three-pronged test to assess proximate cause:

1.         Whether the tortfeasor’s conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm;

2.         Whether there is a rule or policy that should relieve the tortfeasor from liability; and

3.         Whether the harm could have reasonably been foreseen by a person of ordinary intelligence.

The court briefly addressed the first two factors finding that the Defendant’s actions were a substantial factor in causing the Plaintiff’s injuries, but finding that as a matter of public policy jails are not the insurers of inmate safety, and therefore that the second prong was not satisfied. Then, the court went on to focus on the third prong – foreseeability – and held that the Defendant’s had no actual or constructive notice the Plaintiff would become the victim of an assault while he was waiting to be released. The court noted that the Plaintiff had been incarcerated for 8 hours with the same inmates before the attack occurred with no previous incident, and that the Plaintiff never complained that he felt threatened prior to the attack. Also, the court found that the attacker had no history of institutional violence despite having been incarcerated for a lengthy period of time. 

The court reversed the judgment against the Defendant.

The court did note that while the Defendant County could not be held responsible for the Plaintiff’s injuries, the Defendant County is still responsible for paying the Plaintiff’s medical bills incurred as a result of injuries he suffered while in custody pursuant to Tennessee statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-4-115(a).

Justice Wade dissented.  His opinion is available by clicking the link.  Here is a brief summary:

Our review is limited to the transcript of the proceeding. The trial judge saw and heard the witnesses firsthand. This Plaintiff was found by the trial court to have been mistakenly charged with a traffic offense. When he strenuously protested being taken into custody, he was jailed with inmates charged with violent crimes. After a night in jail, the Plaintiff was taken to court and ordered released. After more than a three-hour wait for processing, officers, absent any basis for doing so, placed him back into the same cell with the same inmates, where he was assaulted. Under these circumstances, it is my opinion that the trial court properly found as foreseeable that the Plaintiff, wrongly imprisoned, would lodge strong and perhaps offensive objections, whether to law enforcement officers or to individuals in his cell, and that Anderson County officials should have timely processed his release as a means of avoiding the conflict.

Click on the link for more information on thelaw of causation in Tennessee.