No liability for inmate-on-inmate assault where assault was not foreseeable.

Where defendants had no prior notice of foreseeable harm to plaintiff, who was assaulted while he was an inmate at a Tennessee county jail, summary judgment was affirmed.

In Koffman v. Madison County Tennessee, No. W2021-00385-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 17, 2022), plaintiff was arrested and booked into the county jail after violating his probation. Plaintiff was put into a unit that held “ten or more inmates depending upon the number of inmates incarcerated in the jail at any given time.” On the night he was booked, plaintiff was assaulted by a group of inmates and subsequently transported to the hospital for treatment.

Plaintiff filed this suit against the County and the County Sheriff based on the injuries he received in the assault. Defendants moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted based on a lack of foreseeability, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Jails are “not insurers of an inmate’s safety,” with the general rule being that “penal institutions merely have a duty to use reasonable and ordinary care to prevent foreseeable attacks on inmates by other inmates.” (internal citations omitted). The Tennessee Supreme Court has addressed the issue of when an assault is foreseeable, explaining that the “penal institution must have had prior notice of an attack,” which can be actual or constructive. (citing King v. Anderson County, 419 S.W.3d 232 (Tenn. 2013)). Regarding notice, the Supreme Court explained:

Such notice may arise from knowledge of specific threats to a specific inmate or group of inmates from 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 constructive notice of foreseeable harm to specific individuals or groups of persons.

(quoting King).

Based on the facts of this case, the Court agreed that there was no actual or constructive prior notice making the attack on plaintiff foreseeable. The Court noted that plaintiff “provided no information to the booking officer indicating that he believed there were ‘incompatible’ inmates in the jail;” that neither plaintiff nor other inmates told officers that plaintiff was in danger or being threatened; and that plaintiff never requested to be in protective custody. While plaintiff attempted to rely on a notation in one of the attacker’s booking reports that stated that the inmate “TAKES OTHER INMATES’ TRAYS AND BULLIES THEM,” the Court ruled that this notation was “not enough to place Defendants on either actual or constructive notice that he would assault Plaintiff.” The Court pointed out that the notation did not mention any physical violence or any threat of physical violence, and it found that the use of the word “bully” “does not actually establish that such a person has a propensity to engage in physical violence against another.” (internal citations omitted).

Because plaintiff produced no evidence that “there was any notice of foreseeable harm” to him, summary judgment was affirmed.

This opinion contains a good summary and application of the standard for holding a penal institution liable for an inmate-on-inmate assault, and it is an important read for anyone litigating a case involving such an attack.

This opinion was released one month after oral arguments in this case.

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