Liability of Tennessee for Inmate-on-Inmate Attacks

In Cook v. State of Tennessee, No. W2016-01914-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 27, 2017), the Court affirmed summary judgment in a case where a plaintiff inmate alleged the state was liable for the injuries he suffered after being stabbed by another inmate.

Plaintiff and his cellmate were both inmates at West Tennessee State Penitentiary. They began sharing a cell in October 2010, and on December 6, 2010, cellmate stabbed plaintiff with a handmade knife. Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Tennessee Claims Commission alleging that “the State was liable because [cellmate’s] attack on him was reasonably foreseeable.”

During discovery, it was established that both plaintiff and cellmate were listed as minimum security prisoners (the lowest rating), that the cellmates had a “good relationship” prior to the assault, and that plaintiff had never felt threatened or unsafe around cellmate.  Based on these facts, the State moved for summary judgment, which the claims commission granted and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

In Tennessee, prisons “merely have a duty to use reasonable and ordinary care to prevent foreseeable attacks on inmates by other inmates.” (internal citation omitted). This duty is only breached when “the institution’s authorities knew of or had reason to anticipate an attack and did not use reasonable care to prevent it.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). A plaintiff must show that the institution’s negligence was the proximate cause of his injuries, and one prong of the proximate cause test requires plaintiff to prove that “the harm giving rise to the action could have reasonably been foreseen or anticipated by a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence.” (internal citation and quotation omitted).

In the context of a prison injury involving an inmate-on-inmate attack, Tennessee courts have held:To establish the proximate causation necessary to prevail in a negligence action against a penal institution for an inmate-on-inmate assault, the institution must have had prior notice of an attack. …[P]rior notice can be actual or constructive. Such notice may arise from knowledge of specific threats to a specific inmate or group of inmates form another individual or group of individuals, or an inmate’s prior institutional history of violent—including self-destructive or suicidal—behavior, or any other specific information or conditions that would provide prison officials with actual or construction notice of foreseeable harm to specific individuals or groups of persons.

Tennessee courts have consistently held that where a governmental entity had no prior notice of an inmate-on-inmate attack, it cannot be held liable.

(internal citations and quotations omitted).

Here, plaintiff argued that the attack was foreseeable because the cellmate “was caught attempting to remove a piece of steel from the prison school and…was previously caught in possession of a knife.” The Court pointed out, though, that the weapon was taken away and that “there was no evidence” that cellmate intended to make a weapon out of the piece of steel. Further, the Court noted that plaintiff did not prove when cellmate allegedly was found with a knife, and that there was no evidence that he had “used any weapon to assault an inmate or a prison guard prior to the assault” at issue. Essentially, the evidence plaintiff tried to use to establish foreseeability was too unrelated to the incident, especially considering the facts that the cellmates had no previous problems and plaintiff himself testified that he had never felt threatened by cellmate.

Because plaintiff could not show that the attack was foreseeable, he could not prove proximate cause, and summary judgment was thus affirmed.

As pointed out in this opinion, the burden of proof to show negligence on the part of the State for an inmate-on-inmate attack is high. Plaintiff here simply did not have evidence that was strong enough or specific enough to overcome summary judgment.