Tennessee Prisoners Suing Private Prisons Not Required to File in Local Venue
by David Reutter
The Tennessee Supreme Court has held that a state statute requiring a local venue for lawsuits filed by indigent prisoners does not apply to actions that accrued while a prisoner “was housed in a correctional facility operated by a private corporation pursuant to a contract with the state or local government.”
When Tennessee state prisoner Sandy Eugene Womack arrived at the Whiteville Correctional Facility (WCF) in Hardeman County in February 2010, he had a cut on his right ankle. He alleged that he did not receive adequate treatment for the cut and, as a result, his right leg was amputated below the knee on September 28, 2010. WCF is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
At the time he filed suit, Womack was housed at the DeBerry Special Needs Facility located in Davidson County, a state prison run by the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC). Womack filed his lawsuit in Davidson County, stating it was “CCA’s principal place of business” and alleging the company’s “negligent acts, omissions, and/or intentional acts ... result[ed] in the amputation of [his] leg.”
CCA moved to dismiss the suit or have it transferred to Hardeman County, which it argued was the correct local venue pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-21-803. According to CCA, the statute “effectively localized actions brought by prisoners.” The trial court agreed, ordering the case to be transferred to Hardeman County, but granted Womack permission to seek an interlocutory appeal and stayed the transfer. The Court of Appeals affirmed and the Tennessee Supreme Court granted review.
At issue was the construction of § 41-21-803, which requires lawsuits filed by indigent prisoners housed in TDOC-operated facilities to “be brought in the county in which the facility is located.” Womack argued that the statute was inapplicable to actions accruing at WCF because it is operated by CCA rather than the TDOC.
The Supreme Court noted the definition of “inmate” had changed over the years and currently includes a “person ... housed in a correctional facility operated by a private corporation pursuant to a contract with the state or local government.” That language, however, “does not suggest to us any intended alteration of the operative part of the venue provision,” the Court wrote.
The operative part of the statute – that a prisoner must file suit in the county in which the facility where the action accrued is located – does not “include a facility operated by a private corporate entity.”
Therefore, the trial court’s order transferring Womack’s case to Hardeman County was reversed and the costs of the appeal were taxed to CCA. See: Womack v. Corrections Corporation of America, 448 S.W.3d 362 (Tenn. 2014).
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Related legal case
Womack v. Corrections Corporation of America
|448 S.W.3d 362 (Tenn. 2014)
|State Supreme Court