Court rules inmate's wrongful death case can move forward

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   The Tennessee Supreme Court has reversed a summary judgment ruling made by two lower courts involving a local mental health agency and the suicide of a Carter County Jail inmate in 1997.
   Supreme Court Justice Janice Holder delivered the court's opinion which ruled Frontier Health and Woodridge Hospital are not immune from liability involving the suicide of Richard Lee Shelburne.
   On Nov. 19, 1997, county jail inmates were preparing to leave for work detail when Shelburne grabbed the pistol from the supervising officer's holster and fatally shot himself.
   "I didn't think it would take five years, but these things work extremely slow," said Robert L. King, the attorney representing Shelburne. "A lot of things came up during the appeals process and a lot of that will have to be brought to the court's attention."
   Shelburne's widow, Shirley A. Shelburne, filed suit against the Carter County Sheriff's Department, Frontier Health, and Woodridge Hospital for the wrongful death of her husband. The trial court granted summary judgment to Frontier and Woodridge.
   The state Court of Appeals affirmed that decision, holding that Frontier and Woodridge could not be held vicariously liable for the acts or omissions of their employee because he was entitled to immunity as a state employee. A summary judgment then filed by the county was denied by Judge Thomas J. Seeley.
   Citing the case of Johnson v. LeBonheur Children's Medical Center, the court's opinion reads that while that decision provides that members of community-based screening agencies are state employees, nothing in that section indicates that the agencies themselves are state employees.
   "Under our decision from Johnson, a private hospital is not immune from liability for the acts or omissions of state employees who are also acting as agents of the private hospital," according to the Supreme Court's decision.
   The Johnson v. LeBonheur Children's Medical Center case was heard by the Supreme Court just last year. In that case, the court ruled a private hospital may be held vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondent superior based on the acts or omissions of a state-employed physician resident if that resident is found to be an agent or servant of the hospital.
   The court pointed out that the Johnson ruling did not extinguish a claimant's right of action, but merely made state employees immune from individual monetary liability.
   According to court records, Shelburne was an inmate at the Carter County Jail when he attempted to hang himself in his cell on Nov. 12, 1997. Jail staff called Woodridge Hospital, which is owned and operated by Frontier Health. The agency provides crisis response services in East Tennessee under a grant from the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.
   Frontier employee Richard Kirk reportedly arrived at the jail and conducted a psychiatric evaluation of Shelburne. According to the case background, Kirk prepared two reports, -- a Mental Health Consult and a Crisis Response Evaluation -- both of which indicated that Shelburne was alert, oriented, coherent, and not psychotic at the time of the evaluation. The reports also stated that Mr. Shelburne denied any suicidal intent and that he "promised safety."
   Kirk advised jail staff to maintain increased supervision over Mr. Shelburne but stated that further suicide protocol was not necessary and had no further contact with Shelburne, according to the case background.
   "It is our claim that there is no relationship to what happened a week before," said Tom McKee, attorney representing Frontier Health. "It will go to trial between both defendants, and it is up to a jury to determine if either is at fault."
   Since Kirk's conduct remains available as a basis for the imposition of liability in the Tennessee Claims Commission against the state, Shelburne's right of action survives, according to the court's decision.
   "Mr. Kirk's personal immunity does not prevent Frontier and Woodridge from being held vicariously liable for his negligence under the doctrine of respondent superior. Furthermore, none of the statutes we have reviewed grant immunity to private hospitals," Holder writes in the court's opinion.