Inmate Defeats Jailer’s Bid for Change of Venue

     NASHVILLE (CN) – An inmate can press his claim that the negligence of a private jail operator led to the partial amputation of his leg, even though he’s now been transferred to a public facility in a different part of the state, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled.
     Sandy Womack sued Corrections Corporation of American in 2011, alleging the company failed to provide him with proper medical care after he cut his ankle while incarcerated at the Whiteville Correctional Facility in, which is owned and operated by CCA.
     Eventually, an infection set in and Womack’s leg was amputated below the knee, the inmate says.
     However, by the time he decided to sue, Womack, who was serving a lengthy sentence for armed robbery, was confined at a different jail, one operated by the Tennessee Department of Correction in another part of the state.
     CCA moved to dismiss the suit or have it transferred to the county in which its facility is located on the basis of a provision of state law that says “An action that accrued while the plaintiff inmate was housed in a facility operated by the [D]epartment [of Correction] shall be brought in the county in which the facility is located.”
     A Davidson County circuit court judge granted the company’s motion to transfer the case, but also granted Womack permission to pursue an interlocutory appeal. The Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court ruling.
     Womack then turned to the state Supreme Court in Nashville, which reversed the decision and remanded the case on the grounds that the state law CCA cited does not apply to private prisons.
     In doing so, Justice William Koch Jr. acknowledged that the issue raised by Womack is one the Court of Appeals has grappled with so often over the years that the court has been “left … questioning its own decisions.”
     He then turned to the matter at hand, focusing on the plain language of the statute CCA relied on to have the case transferred.
     “The statute designates local venue for ‘an action that accrued while the plaintiff inmate was housed in a facility operated by [TDOC].’ Quite clearly, the statute does not refer to a facility operated by a private corporation such as CCA,” Koch wrote, noting that courts, “must be circumspect about adding words to a statute that the General Assembly did not place there.”
     He continued” “Looking to the language of the statutory scheme at issue in this case, we find nothing to signal a legislative intent that ‘a facility operated by [TDOC],’ as used in Tenn. Code Ann. §41-21-803, includes a correctional facility operated by a private corporation. The natural and ordinary meaning of ‘a facility operated by [TDOC]’ in this context does not encompass a facility operated by a private corporate entity. To read it so would require a forced interpretation, which we much avoid.”
     Koch then turned the potential impact of a 2001 amendment to the statute that changed some definitions within it, including that of “inmate.” The new statutory scheme “as a whole recognized that the inmates to which it applied could be housed in multiple types of facilities. However, the language of the venue provision limited its application to inmates of only one variety – those housed in a facility operated by TDOC at the time their action accrued,” Koch said, concluding that the operative part of the statute still dictated only one thing: that inmates housed in a facility operated by TDOC at the time their action accrued must bring suit in the county where the facility is located.
     Neither CCA nor privately operated correctional facilities were mentioned during the legislative discussion of 2001, Koch added.
      “The omission of privately operated facilities from [state code] supports a conclusion that the general assembly intended to continue to limit the application of [the law] to facilities operated by TDOC,” he said.

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