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Georgia Court Rules Prisoners Held in County Facilities Barred from Suing State for Negligence

The Court of Appeals of Georgia held on October 21, 2011 that a county housing state prisoners under a contract with the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) is an independent contractor; therefore, the state is entitled to sovereign immunity against negligence claims brought by prisoners housed at county facilities.

That ruling came in an appeal by the GDOC in a case where the trial court had denied the state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by prisoner Anthony W. James. The suit claimed that James had sustained injuries on May 31, 2005 while on a work detail at an Effingham County ball park. At the time he was a state prisoner incarcerated at the Effingham County Prison (ECP) pursuant to a contract with the GDOC.

Although the weather was rainy, James was forced to continue pouring a concrete slab. When he lost his balance, the wet concrete came into contact with the skin on his legs. A few hours later James complained to the maintenance coordinator and a guard; he was given “burn cream” and subsequently returned to ECP.

James sought treatment for his legs at the ECP medical unit the next day. A nurse treated him for abrasions rather than burns, and applied hydrogen peroxide solution and triple antibiotic ointment on the affected area before wrapping it in gauze. She provided similar treatment for each of the next five days. On June 6, 2005, the nurse’s supervisor returned from vacation, looked at James’ legs and immediately ordered him transported to a hospital.

James had to undergo two surgeries and skin grafts as a result of chemical burns from the wet concrete; he was treated at a burn unit and also needed physical therapy.

The state moved to dismiss James’ lawsuit, which raised a claim of negligence and argued that the GDOC “had breached a non-delegable duty to provide safety and health at the construction site and that it had breached a non-delegable duty to provide proper and expedient care after he sustained injuries at the construction site.”

The Georgia Tort Claims Act (GTCA) waives sovereign immunity for torts committed by “state officers and employees,” but the Act specifies that that “term does not include an independent contractor doing business with the state.” The “true test of whether the relationship is one of employer-employee or employer-independent contractor is whether the employer, under the contract either oral or written, assumes the right to control the time, manner, and method of executing the work as distinguished from the right merely to require certain definite results in conformity with the contract,” the appellate court wrote.

“The record before us contains no evidence the GDOC assumed the right to control the time, manner and method of operating either the work detail or the medical unit.”
Consequently, the Court of Appeals found that Effingham County was acting as an independent contractor, which entitled the GDOC to sovereign immunity.

The trial court’s order was therefore reversed and the case remanded to grant the GDOC’s motion to dismiss. See: Georgia Department of Corrections v. James, 312 Ga.App. 190, 718 S.E.2d 55 (Ga.App. 2011).

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Related legal case

Georgia Department of Corrections v. James