Where plaintiff filed suit against a county based on an alleged sexual assault by a county employee that occurred when minor plaintiff was detained at the county’s juvenile detention center, the trial court’s ruling that the county “retained immunity under the Governmental Tort Liability Act because the claims against the county arose out of civil rights claims” was affirmed.
In Betty H. v. Williamson County, No. M2022-00300-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 14, 2023), plaintiff filed suit asserting multiple claims against the county and county employees. Plaintiff alleged that while she was detained at the county’s juvenile detention center, a county employee sexually assaulted her two times. Plaintiff eventually voluntarily dismissed the claims against the county employees but moved forward with her claims against the county.
After discovery, the county filed a motion for summary judgment based on several grounds. The trial court granted the motion, ruling that plaintiff’s claims arose out of civil rights claims and that the county therefore retained immunity under the GTLA. The trial court made additional findings as well, but the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment based solely on the immunity provided by the GTLA.
“[W]hen a plaintiff asserts a claim against a governmental entity for injuries caused by alleged negligent acts or omissions of the entity’s employee, the entity retains immunity from suit if the injuries arise out of ‘civil rights.’” (citing Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205). The Court explained that Tennessee caselaw “holds that where the acts a plaintiff alleges to be negligent are predicated on intentional tortious conduct involving the violation of the plaintiff’s civil rights by government employees, the civil rights exception in Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205(2) applies.” (internal citation omitted). Further, based on previous similar cases, “a plaintiff’s claims premised on negligent conduct—such as a negligent supervision and training claim—may, under certain circumstances, arise out of civil rights, even though tortious conduct must meet higher standards of fault than negligence in order to constitute rights violations.” (internal citation omitted).
In this case, plaintiff brought two claims against the county—one for vicarious liability for the intentional tort of assault and battery, and one for the negligent hiring, training, and supervision of the employee. The Court ruled that “the substantial point of Plaintiff’s claim against the County for vicarious liability based on [the employee’s] intentional assault and battery of the Minor falls…within the ambit of civil rights,” and that the claim was therefore barred. (internal citation omitted). The Court also found that the direct claim for negligent supervision and training arose from civil rights claims. Because the gravamen of the claim was the “underlying alleged assault and battery…while the Minor was in government custody,” and because that “claim sounds squarely in civil rights,” the Court held that the county retained immunity and the negligent supervision claim was barred.
Summary judgment for the county was accordingly affirmed.
If you are litigating a GTLA case that might fall within the ambit of a civil rights claim, this opinion is an important read, as it pulls together much of the Tennessee jurisprudence regarding the GTLA and the civil rights exception.
This opinion was released 5.5 months after the case was assigned on briefs.
Note: Chapter 41, Section 3 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
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