A jail inmate on a work detail can be considered a public employee, Commonwealth Court has ruled in a decision that could open the door to liability against a government entity for injuries that may stem from such work assignments.
A sharply divided en banc panel ruled last month that the case at issue, Allen v. Wayne County, can proceed beyond the pleadings stage to determine whether there is support for the plaintiff's allegations that an inmate negligently struck him with a lawn tractor and that the tractor was negligently maintained by the county.
The court found that a potential jury question exists as to whether the inmate's actions were foreseeable to the county and thereby made the county liable.
The county had argued that because the inmate was not an employee, it couldn't be held liable for his actions, which injured another inmate.
Writing for the majority, Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini said inmate Jason Hicks was a county employee under Section 8501 of the Judicial Code because he was acting "on behalf of a government unit."
Hicks' status creates an exception to governmental immunity, the majority decided.
"Under this provision, the status of the person, the reason the person is engaged in the activity, the purpose for which she is engaged in the activity or the lack of a formal employment relationship is irrelevant in determining whether the person is an employee for the purpose of tort immunity," Judge Pellegrini said.
"All that is required is that the person be acting on behalf of the local agency."
Judge Pellegrini was joined by Judges Renee Cohn Jubelirer, Mary Hannah Leavitt and P. Kevin Brobson.
In his concurring and dissenting opinion, Judge Robert Simpson said a prisoner doing work for the prison can't be considered an employee.
"I would hold that a prison inmate performing yard work at a correctional facility does not fall within the definition of 'employee,' " Judge Simpson said. "Inmates are incarcerated at correctional facilities for penal rather than employment purposes."
Judge Simpson was joined by Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter. Judge Bernard L. McGinley dissented without providing an opinion.
The case stems from a 2009 incident in which Hicks, an inmate, backed a lawn tractor into Kevin Allen, who was also an inmate. Allen filed a personal injury complaint, alleging that Hicks was a county employee, that negligence on behalf of the county through its employee caused his injuries, and that the circumstances fell within the vehicle liability exception to governmental immunity.
Allen also alleged that the tractor's reverse warning system was broken or disabled and that the county's negligent maintenance of the tractor was within the governmental immunity exception.
The county filed preliminary objections, and the trial court found that a county inmate is not a local agency employee for the purposes of liability under the governmental immunity exception. The trial court sustained the objections but did not address Allen's claim that the lawn mower had been improperly maintained. The case was dismissed with prejudice.
On appeal, Allen argued the trial court erred by finding that an inmate performing maintenance at a neighboring facility is not a county employee for the purposes of governmental liability. The plaintiff argued that because the inmate was acting on behalf of the county, he fell within the definition of employee.
The county argued that Hicks was not an employee. Noting that Hicks did not consent to his incarceration, the county contended that both parties must consent to an employee relationship for one to exist.
Judge Pellegrini said the trial court should have addressed Allen's claim that improper maintenance of the lawn tractor qualified as an exception to governmental immunity and contended that the county could be found liable for a percentage of Allen's damages based on the allegedly negligent maintenance.
In his 11-page concurring and dissenting opinion, Judge Simpson agreed with the majority's finding regarding the improper maintenance claim but argued that Allen was not an employee under the governmental immunity exception, and therefore the case should be tossed.
Case law already has determined that prison labor doesn't create an employer-employee relationship between prisoners and the facility, he said.
"The purpose of an inmate's imprisonment is penal," Judge Simpson said. "Inmates do not receive 'wages,' as the services performed are intended to train and rehabilitate, not to provide a source of income as a means of earning a livelihood."
Scott E. Schermerhorn, counsel for Allen, said this decision now brings inmates' actions into the narrow exception for governmental immunity.
"If you're putting inmates in a position of trust, like driving, or care custody or control of property, there should be some degree of responsibility or care considered to us, the general public, and also other inmates," he said.
Michael J. Donohue, counsel for Wayne County Correctional Facility, said he was disappointed with the decision but heartened by Judge Simpson's dissenting opinion.
"Once you stretch the definition of employee to prisoners, any personal injury suffered by a prisoner in the state or county prisons in Pennsylvania will potentially provide a personal injury claim," he said.
Counsel for both parties said an appeal of the decision appears likely.