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Texas Court of Appeals Upholds $42.5 Million Award Against Wackenhut / GEO Group

Texas Court of Appeals Upholds $42.5 Million Award Against Wackenhut / GEO Group

by Matt Clarke

On April 2, 2009, a Texas Court of Appeals upheld a jury award of $22,000,000 in actual damages and $20,500,000 in punitive damages against Wackenhut Corrections (now known as GEO Group) in a lawsuit filed over the 2001 beating death of a Texas state prisoner at a Wackenhut-run facility. [See: PLN, Feb. 2007, p.34].

“This case involves the horrific and gruesome death of Gregorio de la Rosa, Jr. Gregorio, an honorably discharged former National Guardsman, was serving a six-month sentence at Willacy County State Jail, a prison operated by Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, for possession of less than 1/4 grams of cocaine,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “A few days before his expected release, Gregorio was beaten to death by two other inmates using a lock tied to a sock, while Wackenhut’s officers stood by and watched and Wackenhut’s wardens smirked and laughed.”

The two prisoners who beat de la Rosa to death, Daniel Sanchez and Pedro de Jesus Equia, had been allowed to pass through a control gate without being pat searched just before the attack; they were armed with at least two locks tied to a sock. De la Rosa was hit from behind, rendered unconscious and then repeatedly kicked for 15 to 20 minutes, according to witnesses. Furthermore, the witnesses, including Wackenhut employees, recounted how Warden David Forrest and Assistant Warden Elberto Bravo laughed about the fatal assault.

One guard had noticed that something was wrong when Sanchez and Equia, without being searched, followed de la Rosa into a 100-yard-long walkway connecting the prison’s buildings called the “bowling alley.” However, when the assault occurred he was prevented from entering the normally unmanned area to break up the fight, and he testified that he believed de la Rosa’s death was a “hit” in which guards were paid off to allow attacks against prisoners. A teacher employed at the prison begged other guards to intervene while de la Rosa was being beaten to death, but they refused despite several guards being present near the gate to the “bowling alley.”

De la Rosa survived the initial assault and regained consciousness. Yet it took over an hour before medical personnel arrived, even though some were employed by and available at the prison. He was eventually transported to a hospital where he died during emergency surgery due to internal bleeding. De la Rosa was four days away from completing his six-month sentence.

His family filed suit against Wackenhut and Warden David Forrest in Willacy County District Court, alleging a wrongful death claim and asserting the defendants had acted with malice and gross negligence. Evidence introduced at trial revealed the prison had been repeatedly cited by state auditors for failing to pat search prisoners. Further, Wackenhut officials had knowledge of four prior assaults in which locks were used as weapons, but did nothing to prevent prisoners from obtaining locks.

Guards testified that locks were easily found during pat searches, and de la Rosa would not have been killed had Sanchez and Equia been searched as required by post orders. The jury found the defendants had acted with malice and gross negligence, and awarded de la Rosa’s family a total of $47.5 million in damages – which included punitive damages of $20 million against Wackenhut and $500,000 against Forrest.

Actual damages were awarded as follows: $2.5 million against each defendant for past mental anguish, future mental anguish, past loss of companionship and future loss of companionship for de la Rosa’s mother; $2.5 million each for past mental anguish and past loss of companionship for the estate of his father, who died before the lawsuit was filed; and $2 million each for future mental anguish and future loss of companionship for each of de la Rosa’s three daughters. After trial, the district judge awarded de la Rosa’s estate an additional $7,000 in funeral expenses and $511 in EMS expenses. Wackenhut appealed the jury verdict.

During a deposition, Warden Forrest testified that he had seen a videotape of the fatal beating recorded by a camera situated to observe events in the bowling alley, and he described the assault in detail. “Amazingly, Warden Forrest amended his deposition to testify that the ‘video’ he testified to seeing was in reality a movie he had ‘created’ in his mind based on information he had learned about the beating,” the Court of Appeals noted. Forrest had also claimed the attack on de la Rosa lasted about 30 seconds and medical personnel were called immediately, which conflicted with witness accounts.

Wackenhut had argued that only one lock was used in the beating, while a report about the incident stated two lock shanks were discovered at the scene after the assault. Another videotape was made of de la Rosa following the attack, but Assistant Warden Bravo was seen taking it to the parking lot and Wackenhut claimed it didn’t have the tape, which was never found. The only videotapes produced were of guards restraining de la Rosa’s assailants and escorting them to the medical department; one of those tapes had been partly erased. These events resulted in the trial judge giving the jury a spoliation-of-evidence instruction, allowing them to assume the missing evidence would have been to Wackenhut’s detriment.

The Court of Appeals was concerned about the missing evidence and Warden Forrest’s dubious testimony, too, and called Wackenhut’s conduct “clearly reprehensible and, frankly, a disgusting display of disrespect for the welfare of others and for this State’s civil justice system. ... Moreover, Wackenhut’s conduct in maliciously causing Gregorio’s death and thereafter spoliating critical evidence so offends this Court’s sense of justice that a high ratio [of punitive damages to actual damages] is warranted.”

The Court of Appeals held there was sufficient evidence to support all elements required to justify the damage awards. Many of Wackenhut’s issues on appeal were not preserved because the company’s attorneys failed to object or had actually caused the alleged errors, including a failure to raise the affirmative defense of a statutory cap on punitive damages, which could have limited the punitive damages award to $751,103 against each defendant.

The appellate court found the punitive damages were not excessive even though de la Rosa’s estate received no actual damages, considering the large amount of actual damages awarded to the plaintiff family members. The Court of Appeals held it was improper for the trial court to award $7,000 in funeral expenses because there had been no proof of the amount of the funeral costs. The Court further held that the $5 million in actual damages awarded to the estate of de la Rosa’s father was improper because wrongful death claims do not survive the plaintiff’s death.

The Court of Appeals upheld the remaining $42,500,511 in actual and punitive damages and costs. See: Wackenhut Corrections Corporation v. de la Rosa, Tex.App. Corpus Christi, Case No. 13-06-00692-CV; 2009 Tex. App. LEXIS 2262.

The GEO Group is expected to petition the Texas Supreme Court to review the 114-page appellate ruling. One of the attorneys representing the company on appeal, David Oliveira, a partner in the Brownsville law firm of Roerig, Oliveira & Fisher LLP, is a cousin of Texas State Representative Rene Oliveira, who is also a partner in the firm. GEO Group’s trial lawyer, Bruce Garcia, has since been hired by the Texas Attorney General’s office.

Rep. Oliveira sits on the House Corrections Committee, which considers legislation that affects private prison companies. “Oliveira should have been conducting investigations into these very disturbing facts surrounding de la Rosa’s death at the hands of the GEO Group in his capacity as a member of the Texas House Corrections Committee,” said Ronald Rodriguez, the attorney who represents de la Rosa’s family. “Incredibly, instead Oliveira’s law firm was and is representing GEO Group in the de la Rosa litigation.” Rep. Oliveira did not comment on this apparent conflict of interest.

Additional sources:, Brownsville Herald

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Related legal case

Wackenhut Corrections Corporation v. de la Rosa