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Is a county jail inmate entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for injuries sustained while participating in a work detail program?
Timmy Vuncannon, an inmate, was part of a Tippah County work program under the sheriff’s supervision. He earned $10 per day for his services, which was credited “toward any and all charged of F.T.A./cash bonds owed to the county.” Vuncannon was seriously injured in a forklift accident while helping law enforcement officials as part of the work program.
While Vuncannon’s state and federal claims stemming from the accident were dismissed, Shelby County Health Care Corporation, which owns the hospital where Vuncannon was treated, wants to get paid for Vuncannon’s medical bills, which are more than $640,000.
Initially, SCHCC claimed that Mississippi law required the County to pay Vuncannon's hospital bills. SCHCC and the County eventually settled, and decided to jointly pursue a third party complaint against Mississippi Public Entities Workers' Compensation Trust (MPE), arguing that Vuncannon was covered under the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Act (MWCA) because he was working as a trustee for the jail.
MPE countered that it is under no obligation to provide reimbursement because county inmates injured on work detail are not among those covered by the MWCA.
The district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with MPE.
The Fifth Circuit concluded that, at the time of his injury, Vuncannon was not working for the County under a contract of hire, so he did not fall "within the ambit of the MWCA." Accordingly, the County's workers' compensation insurance did not cover Vuncannon's injuries.
Despite the fact that the Tippah County lost its claim, the appellate court offered an interesting suggestion in the holding: If the County had bargained successfully with MPE for coverage of its working inmates, it would be entitled to the benefit of that bargain, regardless whether the MWCA in fact required the County to maintain that coverage.
It sounds like the Mississippi counties with work programs should start negotiating with MPE.
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