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Tennessee Court of Appeals Affirms Judgment Holding Shelby County Negligent in Jailhouse Suicide Case

When a governmental employee acts negligently – that is, when he or she breaches a duty of care owed to another person, and harm is caused to the victim as a proximate result – the governmental entity for which the employee worked can be held liable for the resulting injuries or wrongful death in many instances.

This can be true even when the direct harm to the victim is caused by someone other than the employee – such as when a mentally distraught individual who should have been more carefully monitored while in the custody of a government official takes his or her own life.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in a recent Tennessee wrongful death case was the father of a man who committed suicide while incarcerated. According to the complaint filed in the case, the decedent was suffering from a mental illness when he was arrested in April 2013 and was accordingly placed in a special jail housing unit for unstable inmates. Although the jail’s policy was for guards to perform safety checks on these inmates at least every 30 minutes, the records allegedly indicated that the decedent was not checked for approximately eight hours. When an inspection was finally made, the decedent was found hanging in his cell.

The father filed a negligence lawsuit against the defendant county, seeking compensation for his son’s death under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act, T.C.A. § 29-20-101 et seq.

Ruling of the Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee at Jackson affirmed. The defendant county argued on appeal that the trial court had erred in finding that the corrections officer who failed to conduct wellness checks on the decedent acted negligently, rather than intentionally, such that the county was liable to the plaintiff for the death of his son, but the appellate court disagreed. The court first noted that the case had been tried to a judge only (rather than a jury) in the court below and that thus the trial court’s findings were presumed correct unless the record preponderated against them.

The court then acknowledged that the Act carved out an exception to the general rule of sovereign immunity that protects governmental entities from suit, but only in cases in which the injury alleged was proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of a governmental employee acting within the scope of his or her employment. In agreeing that the officer acted negligently rather than intentionally, the court noted that the officer did not have any desire to cause harm to the decedent and that the officer had admitted, “due to my negligence, a guy lost his life.”

Speak to a Knoxville Negligence Attorney

If you have been hurt or lost a loved one due to the negligence of another person, a business, or a governmental entity, you should talk to a lawyer about the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the responsible party. Personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits can result in substantial compensation being paid to those who have been hurt or who have lost family members because of another party’s breach of the duty of care owed to a victim. The Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C., handles many wrongful death cases in and around Knoxville, Maryville, and other towns in East Tennessee. Call us at 865-524-5657 to schedule a free consultation, and keep in mind that Tennessee has a relatively short statute of limitations for negligence cases, so it is important to take prompt legal action.

Related Blog Posts:

Court of Appeals Holds that Tennessee Claims Commission Had Jurisdiction Over Case Arising from Negligent Supervision and Retention of State Employee

Tennessee Supreme Court Holds That Husband’s Wrongful Death Claim in Medical Malpractice Complaint Saved Statute of Limitations

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