Inmate Injured on Work Detail – Recovery Limited to Medical Expenses

In Elliott v. City of Manchester, No. M2015-01798-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 24, 2017), the Court of Appeals analyzed an inmate’s ability to recover from a governmental entity when injured while on work detail.

Plaintiff was an inmate at Coffee County jail. While out performing a work assignment, plaintiff “fell from the bed of a pick-up truck and sustained head injuries.” The truck driver was another inmate, and the inmates were being supervised by a city police officer.

Plaintiff brought suit against both the city and county, but he settled with the county, leaving the city as the only defendant. The city filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that it was immune under the GTLA, and the trial court dismissed the case. This appeal followed.

On appeal, the Court first analyzed the application of the GTLA and the extent of the city’s potential liability in this case. The GTLA was enacted in 1973 and “is premised on the absolute immunity of governmental entities.” (internal citation omitted). Immunity is waived by the GTLA and a suit against a governmental entity is allowed “for injury proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of any employee acting within the scope of his employment.” (quoting Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205). Plaintiff argued that the GTLA waived immunity in this case, allowing his suit to move forward. Defendant city asserted, though, that Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-2-123(d)(2) applied here and “controll[ed] over the GTLA[.]”

Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-2-123(d)(2), enacted ten years after the GTLA, states that “neither the state nor any municipality…shall 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.” The Court noted that both the GTLA and this work-detail statute seemed to apply, and cited the Supreme Court’s guidance for situations like this:

Where there is a general provision applicable to a multitude of subjects, and also a provision which is particular and applicable to one of these subjects…the special provision will be deemed an exception, and the general provision will be construed to operate on all the subjects introduced therein except the particular one which is the subject of the special provision.

(internal citation omitted). Further, the Court noted that they must “presume the Tennessee General Assembly knows of its prior enactments and of the state of the law at the time it passes legislation.” (internal citation omitted).

Applying these rules of construction, the Court found that “section 41-2-123(d)(2) is considered an exception to the provisions of the GTLA, and the immunity is not removed.” The Court held that “section 41-2-123(d)(2) operates to remove immunity in cases where an inmate is injured while participating on a work detail but only to the extent of medical bills; it thus controls over the more general provisions of the GTLA.”

Next, the Court analyzed plaintiff’s argument that he should be allowed to recover the difference between the total amount of his medical bills and the negotiated amount the city actually paid to satisfy those bills. While plaintiff’s bills totaled $143,104.12, the city paid only $92,004.34, so plaintiff asserted that he should be allowed to recover $51,099.79 pursuant to collateral source rule. “The collateral source rule…provides that payments made to or benefits conferred on the injured party from other sources are not credited against the tortfeasor’s liability, although they may cover all or a part of the harm for which the tortfeasor is liable.” (internal citation and quotation omitted).  The Court rejected this argument, finding that under the applicable statute “the city is only liable to [plaintiff], if at all, for medical treatment during the period of his confinement.” Because there was “no outstanding balance owed to providers” and plaintiff did not dispute that the city paid the bills, the city was deemed to have “satisfied its liability to him.”

Because plaintiff was limited to medical treatment while in custody, and because that treatment had already been paid for, dismissal was affirmed.

Suits against the government are a different breed of cat.  Before you file what you believe is a GTLA case, make sure your factual scenario does not fall into any exceptions that will prohibit your client from collecting damages.