RICHMOND, Va. -- A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of an insurer that refused to defend an inmate in a lawsuit over a West Virginia jail worker's injuries.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in an opinion filed Friday, reversed a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

The district court had entered summary judgment in favor of Betty Jean Hale, who worked at the Southwestern Regional Jail, and Ezra Lambert, a sentenced inmate.

Lambert worked as a cook in the jail's kitchen six days a week for eight hours each day. Hale worked with Lambert in the kitchen, but was not an inmate.

She alleged Lambert injured her on Oct. 6, 2006, while pushing a cart housing a mixer.

Hale said as Lambert got near her, the mixer fell from the cart and landed on her foot. She suffered a serious injury and incurred medical expenses as a result, she alleged.

The next year, she filed a lawsuit in state court over the mixer incident. In it, she named as defendants Lambert, Aramark, the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, and the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority.

Notified of Hale's lawsuit, National Union Fire Insurance Co. -- the State of West Virginia's insurer at the time -- filed a declaratory action in federal court, arguing that it had no duty to defend or indemnify Lambert with regard to the suit.

"Based on the plain and unambiguous language of (the policy)," alleged National Union, it "has no contractual duty to defend or provide any other policy benefits to... Lambert."

In response, Hale asked the court to declare that Lambert was an "insured" under the State's policy and therefore entitled to a defense and indemnification. Lambert independently sought an identical declaration.

Under the State's policy, an "insured" was defined as "any person or organization qualifying as an insured in the 'persons insured' provision of the applicable insurance coverage."

More specifically, the policy said "persons insured" included the following:

* The "named insured," or in this case the State;

* Any elected or appointed official, executive officer, commissioner, director or member of the "named insured" while acting within the scope of his duties as such; and

* Any faculty member, employee, volunteer worker or student teacher of the "named insured" while acting within the scope of their duties as such.

Because Lambert worked without compensation, elected to work in the kitchen rather than elsewhere, and considered himself a volunteer, the district court ruled that the term "volunteer worker" included him.

In its 14-page ruling, the Fourth Circuit said it was "convinced" that Lambert couldn't possibly meet the definition of a "volunteer worker" as found in the policy.

Judge Albert Diaz said Lambert's and Hale's argument obscured the "broader portrait" of institutional confinement -- "hallmarked by the jail's coercive authority over inmates like Lambert."

"Attention to the realities of Lambert's status as an inmate -- in particular, his duty to work -- compels reversal," Diaz wrote for the Fourth Circuit.

"Absence of coercion is the thread uniting the disparate definitions of 'volunteer.' To be considered a 'volunteer worker,' then, Lambert must have elected to work of his own volition.

"A close look at West Virginia statutes and the nature of Lambert's confinement reveals that his work in the kitchen was anything but voluntary."

The court noted that Lambert conceded he was obligated to work at the jail in some capacity, and that the jail's policy is wholly consistent with state law, which requires inmates to participate in jail work.

"Because a volunteer generally enjoys more freedom than an employee and courts uniformly hold that a jail's absolute authority over an inmate precludes a finding that an inmate is an employee, we have little trouble concluding that an inmate is not a 'volunteer worker,'" Diaz wrote.

"Indeed, Lambert's thwarted protest provides a case study in the coercive authority of jails."

At one point, the inmate had quit work in the middle of a shift to attract attention to his workplace grievances. The jail responded by putting him on lock down.

"Whereas a volunteer worker under the ordinary meaning of the term would have been free to leave his shift at his discretion without suffering a concrete penalty, Lambert was put in 'the hole' for five days when he refused to finish his kitchen shift," Diaz wrote.

The jail's "virtually absolute control" over Lambert yields an "impossible fit" between his role and the definition of "volunteer worker" under the State's policy, the court said.

The court remanded the case to district court for entry of judgment in favor of National Union.

National Union was represented by Thomas P. Mannion and Cy. A. Hill Jr. of Mannion and Gray Co. LPA.

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