Question: Can inmates sue for injuries that occur on NMCD premises as a result of the negligence of NMCD and/or its contractors?
Answer: Yes, Inmates the same rights as others to file a personal injury claim due to the negligent operation and maintenance of NMCD facilities
New Mexico Tort Claims Act
Claims and lawsuits against governmental entities in New Mexico are governed by the New Mexico Tort Claims. Act. This includes claims and lawsuits against the New Mexico Corrections Department. (NMCD).
The Tort Claims Act provides immunity for governmental entities, their employees and agents. Only those claims that fall within very limited exceptions to immunity (waivers of immunity) are allowed to proceed. In the absence of a waiver of immunity, someone harmed by the government (local, county or state) is barred from suing the governmental entity or actor.
Tort Claims Immunity
Collins & Collins, P.C. has filed numerous medical malpractice lawsuits against NMCD and its contractors. There are a number of waivers of immunity that apply to medical negligence of NMCD and/or its contractors. Among the waivers that cover the negligence of NMCD is the waiver for the “operation or maintenance of any building, public park, machinery, equipment or furnishings” under NMSA § 41-4-6(A) which reads:
“The immunity granted pursuant to Subsection A of Section 41-4-4 NMSA 1978 does not apply to liability for damages resulting from bodily injury, wrongful death or property damage caused by the negligence of public employees while acting within the scope of their duties in the operation or maintenance of any building, public park, machinery, equipment or furnishings.”
No Immunity for Operation and Maintenance of Buildings, Machinery, Equipment and Furnishings
This same waiver under NMSA § 41-4-6(A) covers broad range of negligence and other misconduct that might occur at NMCD. The fact that it can apply to medical negligence illustrates this fact. To be clear, NMSA § 41-4-6(A) covers a lot of ground which would include a great variety of “accidents” occurring due to the negligent operation and maintenance of NMCD facilities.
There are all kinds of accidents that happen in prisons that lead to serious injuries to inmates. These accidents can occur just like accidents occur in any other building as a result of negligent operation and maintenance by the owner or operator. Under general personal injury/tort law, claims arising as a result of the negligent operation and/or maintenance of buildings, machinery, equipment and furnishings are broadly classified as premises liability claims.
Inmate Premises Liability Claims
Inmates have few rights. However, with respect to premises liability claims against the government for accidents occurring as a result of the negligent operation and maintenance of NMCD facilities, inmates rights are treated just like any other person bringing a premises liability claim. New Mexico courts have said just that:
Absent clear legislative intent to the contrary, State Tort Claims Act provision contemplating waiver of immunity where injury arose from unsafe, dangerous or defective condition on property owned and operated by government due to alleged negligence of public employees, would not be interpreted or applied more restrictively based solely on party’s status as prison inmate. NMSA 1978, § 41-4-6.Callaway v. New Mexico Dept. of Corrections, 1994, 117 N.M. 637, 875 P.2d 393.
Inmates Must File Grievances Prior to Filing Suit
It cannot be overemphasized, if an inmate is harmed in any way by NMCD or its contractors, the inmate must file grievances. Not only must the inmate file the grievance, the inmate must complete the grievance process. This means carefully following the NMCD rules and policies governing the grievance process. An inmate will be barred from filing a lawsuit if the inmate has not complied with the grievance process.
Inmates and their families know full well this is much easier said than done. NMCD routinely obstructs the grievance process. Based upon reports of many inmates, NMCD does not respond to grievances, loses grievances, misplaces grievances or just plain destroys grievances.
Inmates should be prepared, as they seem to be, for obstruction and interference with inmate grievances. However, they must still try. When the time comes, lawyers can sort out the obstruction and dishonesty of NMCD when NMCD denies the inmate ever filed a grievance or grievances
Protect the Right to Sue – Contact an Attorney
It is important to protect the inmate’s right to sue. NMCD rules and policies regarding grievances are confusing even for lawyers and even more so for inmates. The New Mexico Tort Claims Act can be equally confusing. On top of the complexity of the laws and policies regarding inmate lawsuits, NMCD does all that it can do to shut down an inmates claim every step of the way. It is important to seek legal guidance.