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Cook v. State

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

July 27, 2017

WILLIAM COOK, II
v.
STATE OF TENNESSEE

          Assigned on Briefs July 3, 2017

         Appeal from the Tennessee Claims Commission No. T20120644 James A. Hamilton, III, Commissioner

         The claimant initiated this action by filing a complaint in the Tennessee Claims Commission to recover damages for personal injuries from the State of Tennessee resulting from an attack by another inmate at West Tennessee State Penitentiary. Following discovery, the State filed a motion for summary judgment on the ground that the undisputed material facts established the assault was not reasonably foreseeable; therefore, the claimant could not prove proximate cause, which is an essential element of a negligence claim. The trial court agreed and summarily dismissed the complaint. This appeal followed. We affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Claims Commission Affirmed

          Matthew C. Edwards, Bolivar, Tennessee, for the appellant, William Cook, II.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter, Andree Blumstein, Solicitor General, and Pamela S. Lorch, Senior Counsel, Office of the Attorney General, Nashville Tennessee, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Frank G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Thomas R. Frierson, II, and Brandon O. Gibson, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          FRANK G. CLEMENT JR., P.J., M.S.

         Claimant, William Cook, II, ("Cook") was attacked and stabbed by his cellmate, Chad Morrison ("Morrison"), on December 6, 2010, while both were serving as inmates at West Tennessee State Penitentiary ("WTSP") in Henning, Tennessee. Morrison used a "shank, " or a handmade knife, in the assault and Cook sustained severe injuries as a result.

         In Cook's complaint filed with the Tennessee Claims Commission on March 23, 2012, he contended the State was liable because Morrison's attack on him was reasonably foreseeable. Cook alleged that the State was on notice of and aware of Morrison's dangerous propensity through:

various incidents such as previously making a "shank" or knife in the prison shop and trying to conceal it and previously reported dangerous activity such as threatening a correctional officer. In spite of the fact of knowing Morrison's dangerous propensity and previously reported dangerous activity, Defendant took no action to guard Claimant against or protect Claimant from Morrison nor did Defendant alert or notify Claimant of Morrison's dangerous propensity or Morrison's dangerous activity….

         The State answered the complaint by denying all assertions that the assault was foreseeable and that prison authorities had any reason to anticipate Morrison's attack on Cook. The parties proceeded with discovery and ascertained the relevant facts summarized below.

         Cook was remanded to the custody of the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) following his fourth DUI conviction, and he was transferred to WTSP in October 2010 to serve his sentence. After completing the security assessment process, WTSP determined that Cook required minimum security, which is the lowest level of security.

         Morrison had been incarcerated at WTSP since March 24, 2010. Prior to his transfer to WTSP, Morrison was housed at the Sullivan County Jail. During his confinement there, Sullivan County Jail officials conducted a security assessment for Morrison and found no record of previously resolved or pending violent charges, nor did they consider or suspect that Morrison belonged to a security threat group. After undergoing the classification process at WTSP, WTSP determined that Morrison required minimum security.

         Cook and Morrison became cellmates at WTSP on October 21 or October 22, 2010. Morrison assaulted Cook on December 6, 2010. Prior to the assault, Cook and Morrison had a good relationship, and Cook admitted that Morrison never threatened him.

         After taking discovery, the State filed its motion for summary judgment contending the assault was not foreseeable. More specifically, the State insisted that Cook could not establish the essential elements of negligence, particularly proximate cause; therefore, the State was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. The State supported its motion with a statement of undisputed facts, which included the following:

1. Cook's cellmate at WTSP, Morrison, was transferred from the local jail to WTSP on March 24, 2010.
2. In the Classification Custody Assessment Form, Morrison scored ...

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