Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Tenth District: State may be Liable for Injuries Inmate Sustained at Privately Operated Prison, but Company Must Pay Damages

The Court of Claims of Ohio needs to thoroughly assess whether the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction can be held liable for injuries an inmate suffered while under the control of a private prison operator, even if the private contractor ultimately has to pay for the damages, the Tenth District Court of Appeals ruled.

Willie J. Wright was an inmate in the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ORDC) system when assigned to the North Central Correctional Complex in Mansfield. The prison is managed by Management Training Corporation (MTC) through a contract with ORDC.

On March 9, 2012, Wright was being transported from the prison to a Columbus hospital by MTC correction officers in a van, and when he attempted to exit the van, he fell and injured himself. Wright contends that his fall was the result of negligence by the MTC correction officers.

In November 2012, Wright sued ORDC in the Court of Claims for negligence and the department moved for summary judgment, claiming that MTC is an independent contractor with responsibility for the day-to-day management of the prison, and that it could not be held liable. In January 2014, the court granted summary judgment to ORDC, and Wright appealed to the Tenth District, arguing that the ORDC so fully controls the actions of MTC that the private operator is an agent of the prison system and, therefore, ORDC is ultimately responsible for the negligence of its agent and the agent’s employees.

Writing for the appeals court, Judge William A. Klatt said that the rule in Ohio dating back to 1890 is that an employer is generally not liable for the negligent acts of an independent contractor that it has hired. However, an employer can be deemed vicariously liable for negligence of its agents depending on how much control the employer has over its agent.

Citing, the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in Councell v. Douglas (1955), Judge Klatt’s September 30 ruling states: “If an employer retains control or right to control the mode and manner of doing the work it contracted for, then the relationship is one of principal and agent.... On the other hand, if the employer merely dictates the ultimate result to be accomplished, then the relationship is one of employer and independent contractor.”

Judge Klatt listed 10 factors that could be considered in determining whether a company is an agent or independent contractor and that requires “an intensive factual inquiry.”  The court said MTC has agreed to implement and comply with Ohio laws and administrative rules regarding prison operations, as well as ODRC policies and procedures.

With respect to the operation of the van, Judge Klatt said the Court of Claims looked only narrowly at the question of control of “mode and manner” about how MTC removes inmates from prison vehicles. He instructed the court to take a broader view of the amount of control the state has over the private contractor’s operations before deciding who is liable.

The court noted that “no doubt exists regarding who ultimately will be responsible for the payment of any damages awarded in this case.” In the contract MTC has with the prison system, it must indemnify the state from any financial damages. “Regardless of who Wright sues, MTC will end up paying for any damages awarded,” the court decided.

Judges Susan Brown and Julia L. Dorrian concurred in the decision.

Wright v. Ohio Dept. of Rehab.  & Corr., 2014-Ohio-4359
Civil Appeal From:  Court of Claims of Ohio
Judgment Appealed From Is: Reversed and Remanded
Date of Judgment Entry on Appeal: September 30, 2014

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