High court to define risks of government contractors in suits Justices to hear case of Tenn. inmate against private prison guards

November 28, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writers Thomas W. Waldron and Kate Shatzkin contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to lay down guidelines on the legal risks faced by private companies and their employees when they run government programs or agencies under contract.

With more government functions going private in Maryland and elsewhere in an effort to save money and gain efficiency, the court decision on the contractors' potential exposure to lawsuits is expected to have a wide impact.

At issue in a Tennessee case that the justices will hear is whether privately employed prison guards, working for a company under contract with state or local government, are entitled to any immunity against lawsuits that claim they violated inmates' rights.

The decision in the case, expected by summer, could affect private workers who perform public activities ranging from education to transportation to law enforcement. In Maryland, for example, private companies have contracts to do such things as operate juvenile centers in Baltimore County and Western Maryland, enforce child support laws, and collect highway and bridge tolls.

Federal civil rights laws permit lawsuits seeking damages against those who do official functions at the state, county and city level when they violate someone's rights in the process. When those functions are contracted out to private companies and their employees, they, too, become subject to damage lawsuits just as public officials or employees are.

Public officials and employees can try to defend themselves with a partial immunity claim. Under such a claim, the lawsuit cannot go ahead unless the public officials or workers clearly knew they were violating someone's established rights by their action.

At issue in the case is whether that same defense is available to the employees of private contractors when they perform state and local government tasks.

The case involves two guards who were sued by an inmate at Tennessee's South Central Correctional Center in Clifton. That prison is run for the state by Corrections Corp. of America, a private company that has contracts to operate 50 prisons or jails.

The inmate claimed that the two guards, when transferring him to the Clifton facility, used physical restraining devices that were too tight, causing pain and swelling in his limbs that required hospital treatment. They mocked him when he complained, he said. The guards asked a court to throw out the case, claiming they were entitled to legal immunity.

That argument failed in lower courts. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the guards, while doing public functions at the state prison, were actually private persons "acting for the good of the pocketbook" of their employer.

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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