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Ohio Prisoner Escape and Hostage-Taking Results in Lawsuit Against CCA, Settlement

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has agreed to a confidential settlement in a negligence suit following an escape from one of the company’s private prisons.

On April 2, 2007, prisoner Billy Jack Fitzmorris, held at the CCA-run Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, was taken to a hospital in Youngstown after he suffered a head injury.

Fitzmorris used toe nail clippers to cut plastic flex cuffs used to restrain him to a hospital bed. He then overpowered a CCA guard, stole a car, robbed two banks and broke into an accounting business where he took an employee, Karen Zappitelli, hostage. He eventually released Zappitelli and surrendered to authorities after the police brought him a pizza. Zappitelli sued CCA, arguing that the company was negligent in allowing Fitzmorris to escape.

Zappitelli claimed that she suffered anxiety, sleeping problems and nightmares as a result of the hostage-taking incident, which lasted three hours, and was now afraid of being alone.

In the middle of a jury trial in state court, after 16 witnesses had testified, CCA agreed to settle the suit on confidential terms.

Zappitelli’s attorney, Rex Elliot, with the Columbus law firm of Cooper & 
Elliott LLC, said the settlement would allow Zappitelli and her husband “to close the book on this chapter in their lives.” A CCA spokesperson stated the company was “satisfied with the settlement agreement.” See: Zappitelli v. CCA, Franklin County Court of Common Pleas (OH), Case No. 07CVC06-8311.

Fitzmorris was sentenced in 2009 to 80 years in prison for the two bank robberies and taking Zappitelli hostage. He will not start serving that sentence until he finishes his current 35-year sentence for drug and weapons offenses.

CCA has faced other lawsuits resulting from escapes, including a similar case in Tennessee after Hardeman County Correctional Facility prisoner Mike Settle escaped from a hospital in August 1999. Settle overpowered a guard and took a hospital employee hostage, leading police on a high-speed chase. That case resulted in a $500,000 damage award against CCA, which was upheld on appeal. [See: PLN, Sept. 2006, p.16].

More recently, in November 2010, CCA was sued in state court in Nashville, Tennessee by a police officer who was shot five times by an escapee from the CCA-run Delta Correctional Facility in Mississippi. Police Sgt. Mark Chesnut survived the June 2009 shooting by prisoner Joseph Jackson, Jr., who had escaped from a doctor’s office with the assistance of his cousin, Courtney Logan. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.50; Nov. 2009, p.50].

Chesnut argued in his lawsuit that CCA was responsible for security failures that resulted in the escape and shooting. The case was resolved by a confidential settlement in August 2011. Sgt. Chesnut was represented by Nashville attorney David Raybin. See: Chesnut v. CCA, Circuit Court of Davidson County (TN), Case No. 09C-3841.

Sources: Columbus Dispatch;

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Related legal cases

Zappitelli v. CCA

Chesnut v. CCA