Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Can't Pass Buck in Failure To Communicate

Timmy Vuncannon was an inmate at Tippah County jail serving 118 days for unpaid fines and misdemeanor alcohol-related offenses in December 2005.

The Tippah County Sheriff designated him a trustee, eligible to perform work outside the jail through a county work program. Vuncannon earned $10 per day for the work.

In January 2006, when he was about halfway though his sentence, a Tippah County Sheriff’s deputy instructed Vuncannon to report to the scene of a local drug bust to assist with the seizure of property.

Vuncannon alleged that the scene was under the control of representatives from the Sheriff's Department, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives.

After he arrived at the scene, Vuncannon said these government agents instructed him to use a forklift to load items into the bed of a tractor-trailer.

Vuncannon had no training in the use of forklifts, and his assignment required that he drive a forklift up a ramp that was not made for use with the truck he was loading, and the ramp had not been placed on a flat surface.

The ramp detached from the truck as Vuncannon was driving the forklift down the ramp, causing the forklift to fall to the ground while he was driving.

Vuncannon filed a tort action against the various government agencies whose agents had been present at the time of his accident in the federal trial court for the Northern District of Mississippi.

He sought $17 million in damages for his lost earnings and lost earning capacity, as well as payment of unspecified medical expenses and punitive damages.

The Shelby County Health Care Corp., which owned the facility where Vuncannon received treatment for his injuries, filed a complaint in intervention. The care provider asserted that the county was liable for Vuncannon's $640,648.91 hospital bill.

The county later settled Shelby's claims, and the two entities joined together to sue the Public Entities Workers' Compensation Trust.

They argued that the trust, as the insurance carrier for the county, was liable for Vuncannon's medical expenses.

They lost at trial and again on appeal.

The appellate court noted that Mississippi's Workers' Compensation Act defines an "employee" as a person under a "contract of hire" and that required some consent on the part of the injured to "work" along with consideration and control of the employee by the employer - any purported consent by Vuncannon to volunteer his labor was "at best illusory when examined against the backdrop of Mississippi’s long-held practice of requiring convicts to work," the court said. 

I keep thinking of "Cool Hand Luke" and the inmates working the road out under the hot sun, and the exchange between Captain (Strother Martin) and Luke (Paul Newman):

Captain: You gonna get used to wearing them chains after a while, Luke. Don't you never stop listening to them clinking, 'cause they gonna remind you what I been saying for your own good.
Luke: I wish you'd stop being so good to me, Cap'n.
Captain: Don't you ever talk that way to me. (pause, then hitting him) NEVER! NEVER! (Luke rolls down hill; to other prisoners) What we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it. I don't like it any more than you men.

Seems to me the failure to communicate was reversed in this situation - Tippah County failed to communicate appropriate requirements for foklift safety...

In Vuncannon's case, the court mentioned it had doubts about the "necessity and practical import" of inmates like Vuncannon having workers' compensation coverage since "Mississippi law saddles the incarcerating county with the burden of paying an indigent inmate’s hospital bills" and it is the county, and not Vuncannon himself, that is going to be stuck with the hospital costs at issue.

I reckon Tippah County will be a bit more motivated now to follow appropriate safety practices when using inmate labor - like ensuring proper forklift training and appropriate equipment set up.

The full story is here. The US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion is here.

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