This month, in Shadrick v. Hopkins County, the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a private, for-profit corporation providing medical services to prisoners may be liable for violating the federal constitutional rights of prisoners by failing to adequately train its medical staff. The court also held that the for-profit corporation was not entitled to governmental sovereign immunity as a protection against being sued for state law negligence claims.

In the case, an individual with significant medical issues was booked into jail for a short stay for a misdemeanor offense. The court found that the prisoner’s “urgent need for medical treatment was apparent the moment he walked through [the jail’s] door, yet [the corporation’s] staff did not provide it in spite of [the prisoner’s] requests for help and the urging of jail deputies to attend to [the prisoner].” The court found that the prisoner’s constitutional rights may have been violated because the corporate jail nurses were not trained, and their reckless conduct resulted in the prisoner’s foreseeable death after only a few days because the nurses did not provide medical attention for the MRSA infection that ultimately killed him.

The court further held that the healthcare corporation could also be sued under state law for negligence. The corporation had argued that it deserved governmental sovereign immunity to protect it against any lawsuits based on state law claims. The court rejected this argument because a for-profit corporation is not a governmental entity, and therefore cannot have the same immunity from lawsuits that a governmental entity has. The court noted that other states had also rejected similar arguments. For example, in Mississippi, a court ruled that a for-profit corporation providing health care to inmates was not immune from lawsuits. Likewise, in Oklahoma, the state’s supreme court held a private corporation providing medical services for inmates is not entitled to governmental immunity.