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Lawsuit Over Prisoner Assault at Tennessee Jail Results in Settlement, Dismissal

by Kevin Bliss

A civil rights complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on behalf of a pretrial detainee who was severely beaten by his cellmate at the Rutherford County jail, was dismissed in May 2018 following a settlement by the county defendants.

Robert Johnson was in jail awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges. Due to overcrowding and understaffing he was celled with Guy Mitchell, Jr., a mentally ill convicted felon serving four years for theft and aggravated assault.

Mitchell’s mother, Carrie Harrell, had contacted the director of Rudd Medical Services, PLC, Ken Tucker, to warn him of Mitchell’s mental disorder and propensity for violence. Rudd was the contracted medical provider at the Rutherford County jail. Harrell requested on multiple occasions that Mitchell be transferred to a special needs unit for his own safety. Tucker responded that he could do nothing until Mitchell proved himself a threat.

On December 20, 2014, Mitchell began screaming that he was going to kill Johnson. Guards Gregory McNeil and Danny Cobb took several minutes to respond. In that brief time, Mitchell reportedly assaulted Johnson and left him lying unresponsive on the cell floor; he was later charged with first-degree attempted murder.

Johnson was life-flighted to a hospital for treatment and later transferred to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he remained in intensive care for several weeks.

He was discharged with permanent traumatic brain injury, no cognitive functioning and 100 percent disability. As a result of that incident and two others in the same year that resulted in prisoner deaths, Major Tommy Thompson, who oversaw jail operations, was fired.

Johnson’s parents sued Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess and then-Sheriff Robert Arnold on behalf of their son for inadequate training and supervision of employees at the jail. It was a violation of jail policy to house a pretrial detainee in the same cell as a convicted felon.

They also sued Rudd Medical Services and Ken Tucker for not heeding the warning from Mitchell’s mother of her son’s violent tendencies, and not giving him proper mental health care or treatment.

The lawsuit asserted that the defendants were deliberately indifferent, negligent and acted with reckless disregard, violating Johnson’s Fifth, Eighth, Tenth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The suit sought compensatory and punitive damages.

A settlement for an undisclosed amount was reached with former Sheriff Robert Arnold and jail guards Gregory McNeil and Danny Cobb. No settlement was reached with Rudd Medical Services or Ken Tucker, and they filed a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment. The district court granted the motion and dismissed the case on May 14, 2018.

The court found that “while [Rudd Medical Services] had internal procedures regarding the provision of medical treatment, it served under the auspices of the Rutherford County Sheriff and was clearly bound by the Sheriff Office’s policies and chain of command concerning inmate segregation” at the jail. Since the Sheriff’s Office was the final policymaker, Rudd could not be held liable. Further, the remaining claim against Tucker was dismissed because it was “in his official capacity only ... and an official capacity claim against an individual is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity of which the officer is an agent.” Since Rudd Medical Services could not be held liable, the claim against Tucker failed, too.

Johnson’s parents were represented by attorneys Benjamin Parsley III and David Cooper. See: Johnson v. Rutherford County, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:15-cv-01495. 

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Related legal case

Johnson v. Rutherford County