The Tennessee Claims Commission has exclusive subject matter jurisdiction over a claim by a plaintiff that the state “negligently supervised and retained a prison guard who sexually assaulted [an] inmate.” In Vetrano v. State, No. M2015-02474-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 8, 2017), the Court reversed the claim commission’s dismissal of a negligence suit. Plaintiff alleged that she was an inmate at a state women’s prison and was sexually assaulted by a prison guard. She filed an action with the Tennessee Claims Commission alleging that “state employees negligently supervised and retained the prison guard.” According to plaintiff, another inmate had filed a complaint against the guard for assault, and the guard’s supervisors “had actual and/or constructive knowledge that [the guard] was unfit for the job of corrections officer, and it was reasonably foreseeable that he posed an actual threat of harm to the inmates with whom he came in contact.”
The State moved to dismiss the complaint, alleging that under the Claims Commission Act it “could not be liable ‘for the willful, malicious, or criminal acts of state employees.’” (citing Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(d)). The Claims Commission granted the motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed.
Before looking at the specific issues of this case, the Court discussed state liability as a whole, explaining:
In Tennessee, suits may be brought against the State in such manner and in such courts as the Legislature may by law direct. In 1984, with the enactment of the Tennessee Claims Commission Act…, the Legislature broadly waived sovereign immunity for specified claims against the State. …Under the Act, the Claims Commission possesses exclusive jurisdiction over monetary claims against the State based on acts or omissions of state employees that fit within the twenty-three categories described in the statute. …The State is also not liable ‘for willful, malicious, or criminal acts by state employees, or for acts on the part of state employees done for personal gain.’ …[T]he Legislature has directed that the jurisdiction of the claims commission be liberally construed to implement the remedial purposes of this legislation.
(internal citations and quotations omitted).
The Court’s first task, then, was “to determine whether this claim falls within one of the statutory categories for which the Claims Commission possesses exclusive jurisdiction,” in particular, whether it fell within the category listed as the “negligent care, custody, and control of persons.” (Tenn. Code Ann. § 9-8-307(a)(1)(E)). Plaintiffs “describe[d] their claim as one for the negligent care of a prison inmate, the type of claim often included within this category,” and the Court ultimately agreed that this category applied. The Court ruled that plaintiff “was a prison inmate, and prison officials have a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care for the protection of the persons in their custody.” (internal citation omitted). “Inmates must establish that prison officials failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent a foreseeable injury,” and plaintiff had alleged that the guard’s supervisors knew or should have known that the guard in question posed a risk to inmates, which was sufficient to make a claim under this category.
Having determined that the allegations fell within a category covered by the Claims Commission Act, the Court next looked at whether the State was nonetheless immune based on its immunity “for the willful, malicious, or criminal acts of state employees.” Here, the State argued that plaintiff’s “negligence theory [was] simply a back-door attempt to circumvent the State’s immunity.” Analyzing the language of the statute, though, the Court found that the State could be liable in this situation.
Although the Claims Commission Act specifies that the State’s liability cannot be premised on the willful, malicious, or criminal acts of state employees, the Act does not specifically retain immunity for claims that ‘arise out of or result from’ such acts. The Legislature knows how to use the phrase ‘arise out of or result from’ when that is its intention. …But similar language is conspicuously absent from subsection (d).
As our courts have recognized in other contexts, a defendant may be held liable for failure to exercise reasonable care to prevent a foreseeable intentional act.
Allowing claimants to proceed with their negligence claim under the facts alleged here achieves the statutory goal of providing a remedy for negligent acts that fall within a specified category without holding the State liable for the willful, malicious, or criminal acts of state employees. …To prevail on her claim, [plaintiff] must establish that the prison officials’ negligence proximately caused a foreseeable injury.
(internal citations and quotations omitted).
Having determined that the claim fell with the Claims Commission Act and that it was not a claim for the intentional act of a state employee, dismissal was reversed.
This was the correct result in this case. Plaintiff was not suing for the actual assault—instead, she was bringing this action due to the State’s failure to take reasonable actions to protect her as an inmate when it had reason to know that one of its guards posed a risk. The Court of Appeals was right to reverse dismissal of this claim.