Tennessee Court Holds That Prisons Owe Duty to Suicidal Prisoners That May Extend Beyond Release

At the heart of every negligence case is the question of whether the alleged defendant actually owed a duty to the plaintiff who was injured. Without the presence of a duty, the defendant simply cannot be held responsible for any accident or injury that might have occurred. In Tennessee, individuals generally do not owe a duty to prevent another individual from harming themselves or to prevent a harm that they had no part in creating. This is often known as the no duty to aid doctrine. However, as with most general rules, there are some exceptions. Recently, the Tennessee Court of Appeals considered whether a special exception applies to prisons when they are in custody of a prisoner, or even after the prisoner is released.

This case arose out of the death of P.H., who killed himself shortly after he was released from prison in Tennessee. Just prior to his death, P.H. had been drinking with several friends and was arrested for public intoxication. At the time of his arrest, he expressed to officers that he suffered from depression, had attempted to commit suicide in the past, and just wished that the officers would kill him. As a result of these statements, he was placed on suicide watch at the jail, but medical professionals were not called. On the next morning, P.H. was eligible for release. While the officer was filling out his release paperwork, he asked P.H. if he was still feeling suicidal, and P.H. joked with him about how that was just something he said while drunk. P.H. indicated that he was fine and did not actually mean that he wanted to kill himself. As a result, the officers concluded he was safe and did not contact any medical providers before releasing him. P.H. was picked up by his grandmother, returned home, and shot himself shortly thereafter. P.H.’s grandmother filed a wrongful death claim against Wayne County, where P.H. was arrested, arguing that they knew P.H. was suicidal, and they owed a duty to contact medical professionals about his suicidal tendencies and warn his family upon release. Wayne County denied that it had any duty and moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted. P.H.’s grandmother appealed.

In its opinion, the Tennessee Court of Appeals noted that while individuals generally do not have an affirmative duty to protect others from harms that they have not created, special duties can arise in certain circumstances. One of these circumstances is when an entity takes custody of another individual. Thus, for instance, when prisons take custody of individuals, they have a duty to prevent any foreseeable harms that might occur while the individual is in custody. This includes a duty to protect the individual from self-inflicted harm when there is a reason to believe that self-inflicted harm might occur. Here, however, the Court of Appeals noted that P.H.’s grandmother was attempting to impose a duty on the prison that lasted even after P.H. was released. The Court held that while duties created from special relationships do not last forever, the duty may exist past the point at which the individual is in custody, if the prison has reason to believe that upon release, the individual will experience harm. It observed that were this not the case, prisons could simply release inmates who posed possible suicide threats in order to avoid any potential liability for their suicides, which would not be a fair outcome.

While this would seem to suggest that Wayne County should be held responsible for P.H.’s death, the Court of Appeals went on to conclude that although prisons may have duties based on special relationships that extend past release, there was no ongoing duty in P.H.’s case because his harm after release was not foreseeable. The court noted that P.H. had made repeated statements to prison officials that he was just joking when he threatened suicide, that he was not going to harm himself, and that there was no reason for prison officials to be worried. In light of these comments, the court concluded it was reasonable for the prison to believe that it was fine to release P.H. without calling a medical professional and that he would not be harmed by release. On this basis, the court concluded that Wayne County’s duty to P.H. ended when he left the prison and that they were not liable for his later suicide.

When an individual is placed in the custody of another person or of an institution, special duties that might not otherwise exist can arise, and plaintiffs may be entitled to money for harms that arise while they are in custody. However, as this case makes clear, those harms must be reasonably foreseeable, no matter the circumstances. Defendants will rarely be held responsible for harms that they could not have anticipated would occur. Experienced Tennessee personal injury attorney Eric Beasley can help you evaluate whether a special duty may apply to your circumstances, particularly if your injury occurred while you were in police or governmental custody. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Finds No Negligence When School Could Not Foresee Student’s Sexual Assault, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, March 9, 2017

Tennessee Court Emphasizes That Dangerous Conditions Must Actually Cause Harm, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, February 3, 2017.

Tennessee Courts Consider When a Party Can Be Held Liable for an Agent’s Negligence, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 12, 2016.