The state Supreme Court has decided not to consider whether an inmate can hold a county liable for injuries he suffered due to the alleged negligence of another inmate on a work detail.
The high court denied allocatur in Allen v. County of Wayne, letting stand a ruling from a sharply divided en banc panel of the Commonwealth Court that allowed an inmate’s case against a county to proceed beyond the pleadings stage. The appellate court had found that a potential jury question existed as to whether the inmate’s actions were foreseeable to the county, thereby making the county liable.
Scott E. Schermerhorn, counsel for plaintiff Kevin Allen, told the Law Weekly following the Commonwealth Court’s September 2013 ruling that the decision brings inmates’ actions into the narrow exception for governmental immunity.
“If you’re putting inmates in a position of trust, like driving, or care custody or control of property, there should be some degree of responsibility or care considered to us, the general public, and also other inmates,” Schermerhorn said.
Michael J. Donohue, counsel for Wayne County Correctional Facility, said after the Commonwealth Court’s ruling that he was disappointed with the holding.
“Once you stretch the definition of employee to prisoners, any personal injury suffered by a prisoner in the state or county prisons in Pennsylvania will potentially provide a personal injury claim,” Donohue said.
According to the Commonwealth Court’s decision, the county had argued that because the inmate was not an employee, it couldn’t be held liable for his actions, which injured another inmate.
However, writing for the majority, Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini said inmate Jason Hicks was a county employee under Section 8501 of the Judicial Code because he was acting “on behalf of a government unit.”
Hicks’ status creates an exception to governmental immunity, the majority decided, under Section 8542(a) of the Tort Claims Act.
“Under this provision, the status of the person, the reason the person is engaged in the activity, the purpose for which she is engaged in the activity or the lack of a formal employment relationship is irrelevant in determining whether the person is an employee for the purpose of tort immunity,” Pellegrini said. “All that is required is that the person be acting on behalf of the local agency.”
Pellegrini was joined by Judges Renee Cohn Jubelirer, Mary Hannah Leavitt and P. Kevin Brobson.
In his concurring and dissenting opinion, Judge Robert Simpson said a prisoner doing work for the prison can’t be considered an employee.
“In accord with the well-settled line of cases narrowly construing the terms of the Tort Claims Act, I would hold that a prison inmate performing yard work at a correctional facility does not fall within the definition of ‘employee,’” Simpson said. “Inmates are incarcerated at correctional facilities for penal rather than employment purposes.”
Simpson was joined by Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter. Judge Bernard L. McGinley dissented without providing an opinion.
The case stems from a 2009 incident where Hicks, an inmate, backed a lawn tractor into Allen, who was also an inmate. Allen filed a personal injury complaint, alleging that Hicks was a county employee, that negligence on behalf of the county, through its employee, caused his injuries, and that the circumstances fell within the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity. Allen also alleged that the tractor’s reverse warning system was broken or disabled and that the county’s negligent maintenance of the tractor was within the governmental immunity exception.
The county filed preliminary objections, and the trial court found that a county inmate is not a local agency employee for the purposes of liability under the governmental immunity exception. The trial court sustained the objections; however, the court did not address Allen’s claim that the lawn mower had been improperly maintained. The case was dismissed with prejudice.
On appeal, Allen argued that the trial court erred by finding that an inmate performing maintenance at a neighboring facility is not a county employee for the purposes of governmental liability. The plaintiff argued that because the inmate was acting on behalf of the county, he fell within the definition of employee.
The county argued that Hicks was not an employee. Noting that Hicks did not consent to his incarceration, the county contended that both parties must consent to an employee relationship for one to exist.
Pellegrini determined that the dispute came down to whether Hicks was an employee within the meaning of 42 Pa. C.S. 8501. He noted that the trial court relied on numerous previous cases where the Commonwealth Court found that inmates are not employees in the context of other statutes. Pellegrini cited the court’s 2004 decision in Heffran v. Department of Labor and Industry, which relied on the court’s 1989 finding in Mays v. Fulcomer that inmates are not employees because their labor belongs to the prison and their remunerations do not constitute wages. He also noted the court’s 1978 holding in Salah v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board that inmates are not public employees under the Public Employee Relations Act.
Pellegrini opined that the prior statutes did not apply to Allen’s case.
“While the principles stated in those cases may well be true in interpreting other statutes, they are not in accord with the definition contained in 42 Pa. C.S. 8501, which provides that ‘any person who is acting … on behalf of a government unit’ is an employee within the meaning of the act,” Pellegrini said.
Citing the state Supreme Court’s 1997 decision in Jones v. Chieffo and its 1995 decision in Powell v. Drumheller, Pellegrini said the trial court should have addressed Allen’s claim that improper maintenance of the lawn tractor qualified as an exception to governmental immunity, and contended that the county could be found liable for a percentage of Allen’s damages based on the allegedly negligent maintenance.
In his 11-page concurring and dissenting opinion, Simpson agreed with the majority’s finding regarding the improper maintenance claim, but argued that Allen was not an employee under the governmental immunity exception, and therefore the case should be tossed.