County Immune From Liability for Injury on Inmate Work Program

Tennessee law “grants counties that allow inmates to work on road details and other projects immunity from liability for injuries,” and that immunity overrides provisions of the GTLA.

In Trojan v. Wayne County, Tennessee, No. M2017-00415-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 23, 2018), plaintiff was an inmate in Wayne County jail and was working on a bridge as part of an inmate work program. While working, he spilled concrete onto his boots and feet and suffered chemical burns, which resulted in scarring. He brought suit against the county for negligence, arguing that immunity was removed under the GTLA. The trial court granted defendant county’s motion to dismiss, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-2-123(d)(2) states that, except in very specific circumstances, government entities shall not “be liable to any prisoner or prisoner’s family for death or injuries received while on a work detail, other than for medical treatment for the injury during the period of the prisoner’s confinement.” Plaintiff argued that this section was limited to prisoners described in another part of the statute, a group into which he did not fall, but the Court of Appeals disagreed.

The Court found:

[S]ubsection 123(d)(2) is clear and unambiguous. The terms are absolute: “any prisoner” is barred from bringing a claim arising out of injuries incurred on work detail. If the Legislature intended to limit the applicability of section 123(d)(2) to the classes of prisoners mentioned in 123(a) and (b), it could have said so; it did not, and we cannot graft such an interpretation onto the statute.

Dismissal was thus affirmed.

Anytime a lawyer is approached with a claim about an injury sustained on inmate work detail, this statute is key to keep in mind. No matter the gravity of the injury, this statute can provide major problems for such a case.