|Legal Opinion: |
Text of Document: March 21, 2007
Re: Ambulance bill for injured prisoner
I have been asked to address a conflict which has arisen between your city and the county over an ambulance bill incurred for the transport of a prisoner. I have reviewed the incident report and gleaned the following facts: the prisoner was arrested by the police for DUI; he was transported to the county jail by a police officer; the police officer assisted the prisoner in getting out of the backseat of the patrol car after they arrived at the county jail; he stood up and then fell backwards, hitting his head on the concrete and lost consciousness; a county deputy called an ambulance, and the prisoner regained consciousness prior to the arrival of the ambulance, but was instructed to remain lying down. He was subsequently transported to the hospital where he received treatment. The sheriff received a bill for the ambulance service, and is insisting that the City pay the bill, denying that the county has liability for the amount.
A county jail must accept all prisoners arrested in the county, by either county deputies or municipal police officers, without requiring a warrant. Tenn. Atty. Gen. Op. No. 02-015; T.C.A. § 8-8-201(3); T.C.A. § 41-4-103. A county jail may not refuse to take custody of an arrestee, even if the arrestee complains about a medical problem or has an obvious injury requiring medical attention. Tenn. Atty. Gen. Op. No. 02-015; T.C.A. § 8-8-201(3); T.C.A. § 41- 4-103. The county has the duty, under statute, to provide medical care to all prisoners. T.C.A. § 41-4-115. If a prisoner needs emergency medical attention, the jail must ensure that the prisoner receives such treatment. State v. Chapman, 977 S.W.2d 122, 127 (Tenn. App. 1997).
The issue of whether or not a prisoner is in the custody of the county, or has been booked into jail, is not a determining factor required before this duty of the county is triggered. State law provides that the county jail is to be used as a prison for the safekeeping or confinement of several classes of persons, including all those “committed thereto by authority of law.” T.C.A. § 41-4-103(a)(7). The Supreme Court has concluded that a “commitment,” as that term is used in this statute, is not limited in its meaning to a formal commitment pursuant to a The issue of whether or not a prisoner is in the custody of the county, or has been booked into jail, is not a determining factor required before this duty of the county is triggered. State law provides that the county jail is to be used as a prison for the safekeeping or confinement of several classes of persons, including all those “committed thereto by authority of law.” T.C.A. § 41-4-103(a)(7). The Supreme Court has concluded that a “commitment,” as that term is used in this statute, is not limited in its meaning to a formal commitment pursuant to a mittimus or warrant; instead, that provision includes those committed for a “temporary holding without a mittimus” because those persons are committed by the legal authority possessed by law enforcement officers. State v. Mitchell, 593 S.W.2d 280, 282 (Tenn. 1980); Wynn v. State, 181 S.W.2d 332, 334 (Tenn. 1944).
The Court held in Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority v. Bradley County, 66 S.W.3d 888 (Tenn. App. 2001), that the county must pay the medical expenses of a prisoner injured before his arrest, although the prisoner was not “confined” at the time he was taken for treatment. The prisoner in the case had not even been arrested prior to being transported to the hospital for care, but the Court nonetheless determined that “it is clear that Dunn was in police custody, and he would have been arrested and taken to jail had he not been wounded.” Chattanooga-Hamilton CHA, at 891. The Court concludes “we hold that Dunn’s circumstances fall within the ambit of Tenn. Code Ann. § 41-4-115 which requires the County to pay for medical services rendered under these circumstances.” Id. at 891.
In this situation, unlike the facts in the above-cited case, the prisoner was under arrest, and was merely being transported to the county jail at the time he fell and injured himself on county property. He clearly “would have been taken to jail had he not been wounded,” as the prisoner in the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority v. Bradley County case. Based on these facts and legal research, it is clear in my opinion that the county is legally responsible for the payment of the ambulance service bill for the injured prisoner. There is no statute or case law under which the City bears this responsibility.
I hope this information is helpful. Please contact MTAS if you need further assistance.
Melissa A. Ashburn