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$305,021 Awarded to Missouri Prisoner Struck by Tree; State Legislature Takes Note

$305,021 Awarded to Missouri Prisoner Struck by Tree; State Legislature Takes Note

by Brandon Sample

A Missouri prisoner was awarded $305,021 after being struck by a tree. In February 2000, Hortense Cain, a female prisoner at the Women’s Correctional Center in Vandalia, was assigned to a Missouri Department of Transportation (MDOT) road crew. Cain’s supervisor, John Perkins, instructed Cain and two other prisoners to fell a tree. Because the tree was particularly large, “notch” and “back” cuts were needed in order to control the fall.

While notching the tree, the chainsaw chain slipped off. After repositioning the chain it slipped again while making a back cut. When the chain was being repositioned, the tree unexpectedly fell on Cain as she was walking to an MDOT trailer to use the toilet.

The prisoner cutting the tree did not intend for it to fall towards Cain; in fact, the notch cuts were made to fell the tree in the opposite direction. Cain suffered a knee injury which eventually required a total joint replacement.

She filed suit against the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission. Following a jury trial, Cain was awarded $412,500 in damages, which was reduced to $305,021 by the trial court on the commission’s motion. The commission also appealed the damage award.

On appeal, the commission argued that it was entitled to sovereign immunity because the tree the prisoners were cutting down was not “in a dangerous condition,” and even if it was, the dangerous condition was not caused by an employee of a public entity. The commission further took issue with one of the trial court’s jury instructions. The Court of Appeals agreed with the sovereign immunity defense and reversed the jury verdict.

The Missouri Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The evidence was sufficient, the Court found, “for a jury to conclude that the manner in which the inmate worker cut the tree, prior to it falling, created a dangerous condition within the meaning of the statute.”
The tree had been standing for 40 minutes from the time the first notch cut was made, the Court noted. During this time, “a dangerous condition existed: the tree could fall at any moment.”

The Court also found that the dangerous condition was created by an employee of a public entity. It mattered not, the Court explained, that the person felling the tree was a prisoner, as the tree was being cut at the direction of an MDOT supervisor. Further, the prisoners were paid for their work, albeit only $7.50 a day. Under such circumstances the prisoners on the road crew were regarded as employees of a public entity.

Nevertheless, the state Supreme Court found merit in the commission’s challenge to the trial court’s jury instructions. Because the error was presumed to be prejudicial, the Court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial. See: Cain v. Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, 239 S.W.3d 590 (Mo. 2007).

The Missouri legislature took note of the Supreme Court’s decision – though not to laud the socially responsible ruling, which held that prisoners injured while on prison work crews could sue for compensation for their injuries. Instead, lawmakers sought to overturn the Court’s finding that prisoners were considered public employees while on prison work assignments. In April 2008, the House voted 135-0 to approve legislation that would overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling (H.B. 2590); however, that bill and companion legislation in the Senate ultimately failed to pass during the 2008 session.

Additional source: Columbia Tribune

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Related legal case

Cain v. Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission