Jail lawsuits joined

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com
A federal judge signed a court order on Friday allowing two class-action lawsuits against Carter County and Sheriff John Henson citing "inhumane conditions" at the Carter County Jail to be consolidated as one.
According to court records, U.S. District Court Judge J. Ronnie Greer filed his court order on Friday at the U.S. District Courthouse in Greeneville approving the motion for joinder filed by Johnson City attorney Scott Pratt and Knoxville attorney John Eldridge on December 31, 2003.
The motion states that the plaintiffs have each brought actions against the defendants -- Carter County and Henson -- and have also sought to have their lawsuits designated as class-action in order to obtain declaratory and injunctive relief. "As a result, the two lawsuits are seeking the same relief against the same defendants, except for each individual plaintiff's claim for damages," the motion states. "The plaintiff's claims against the defendants arise out of the same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences. But for the individual damage claims, the same questions of law and fact will arise in each action."
Pratt filed the first of the two lawsuits against the County and Henson in U.S. District Court on Nov. 2, 2003 and the second was filed in the same court on Dec. 3, 2003. Both lawsuits seek class-action status.
"I'm glad the judge decided to consolidate the two lawsuits because with the exception of the individual claims, the two cases seek the same relief," Eldridge said in a telephone interview with The Star on Monday. "It just makes sense. The defendants are both represented by the same attorney in both cases. Hopefully, this will expedite matters."
The lawsuit filed by Pratt requests that "the court permanently enjoin the defendants, their agents, officers and employees, as well as those acting in concert with them, from engaging in the unlawful practices described in this complaint".
Both lawsuits claim that conditions inmates endure at the Carter County Jail "fall beneath the minimum standards for human decency, inflict cruel and needless punishment on all of the inmates and create an environment that takes a tremendous toll on the inmates' physical and emotional well-being."
The suits seek an injunction against the defendants in the hope of correcting the adverse conditions they claim exist at the detention facility. "Plaintiff and the class seek to alleviate unsanitary conditions, lack of adequate medical care, dental care and mental health care, lack of exercise and recreation, lack of access to legal materials and legal assistance, lack of fire safety, lack of basic hygiene materials, lack of adequate supervision, and other unconstitutional conditions at the facility," the suit filed by Eldridge says.
The first suit was filed by Pratt on behalf of plaintiffs Michael Todd Davis and Donna Wells. The second was filed by Eldridge on behalf of Tony Berry.
All three of the plaintiffs were incarcerated in the Carter County Jail during 2003 and each suffered physical as well as emotional injury during their time in the detention facility. The plaintiffs also seek individual claims for damages in the lawsuits.
Wells said that, while she was an inmate at the jail, she was bitten by a Brown Recluse spider and did not receive adequate medical care for the injury when she notified jailers of the incident and has since developed necrosis, or death of tissue, in her leg which has left permanent injury.
Davis said that he was assaulted by other inmates on several occasions while he was imprisoned in the facility due to inadequate supervision, the complaint states.
Berry said that, while he was incarcerated at the jail, he received inadequate medical care for his diabetes, which jail staff had been informed of, and as a result was released on a medial furlough by a judge because his blood sugar levels were so out of balance that he had to be hospitalized. He said he was left with severe and permanent injury, including some loss of vision, and is disabled.
Both suits contend that the injuries sustained by the plaintiffs are the result of overcrowding, inadequate facilities and inadequate staffing at the jail.
"The Carter County Detention Center is inadequately staffed, inadequately maintained, improperly operated, and unsuited for the housing, care, and personal security of the inmates who reside there," the first lawsuit claims. "The jail is dangerously overcrowded, there are leaks in the ceilings and roof; ventilation and lighting are inadequate; showers and toilets do not operate properly and expose inmates to raw sewage; there is mold an inch think on some of the walls; medical care is grossly inadequate; inmates are improperly classified; food service is inadequate and unsanitary, and there are no facilities or opportunities for recreation or religious activities."
On Jan. 28, the federal judge presiding over the first lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Thomas Gray Hull, stepped down from the case and transferred it to Greer, who was handling the second lawsuit, according to court records. Hull stepped down to have both lawsuits on the docket of a single judge, which simplified the process for joining the two lawsuits.
Knoxville attorney John Duffy has been appointed by Carter County to serve as the defense counsel in both lawsuits. In January of this year, Duffy said he had not filed a response to either lawsuit, as required by law, because he was waiting to see if the two lawsuits would be joined.
Telephone calls to Duffy's Knoxville office seeking comment were not immediately returned on Monday. Pratt also could not be reached by telephone on Monday.