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TransCor May Face Punitive Damages for Prisoner's Death

TransCor America, LLC, a for-profit prisoner transportation company and subsidiary of Corrections Corporation of America, may be held liable for punitive damages if it is found responsible for the death of a prisoner who died while being transported in a TransCor van.

U.S. District Court Judge James F. Holderman, Chief Judge for the Northern District of Illinois, wrote in a March 29, 2012 ruling that while federal prisoner Joseph Curtis, 66, had died during a trip from a prison in Kansas to a facility in Indiana, actions taken by TransCor staff at the company's headquarters in Tennessee made the application of that state's punitive damages statute appropriate.

According to the district court's recitation of facts in the case, on June 23, 2009, a TransCor van with a non-working air conditioner in the prisoners' compartment picked up Curtis at USP Leavenworth and took him and several other prisoners on a circuitous route through Kansas, Missouri and into Illinois before heading to USP Terre Haute in Indiana.

Curtis, who was serving a 60-month sentence for possession of child pornography, died in the unairconditioned TransCor van due to heatstroke. The outside temperature on the day he died reached 95 degrees; records do not indicate how hot it was in the van. At one point, during a McDonald's meal stop, Curtis reportedly had foam coming out of his mouth and white mucus coming out of his nose. His son, Brett Lee Curtis, filed suit in Illinois state court and the case was removed to federal court.

According to the complaint, employees at TransCor's headquarters were advised early in the morning on the day of the incident that the vehicle's air conditioner was not working, but ordered the drivers to continue the trip anyway.

The lawsuit alleged that other prisoners informed the TransCor drivers that Curtis was in distress due to heat exposure, but the drivers ignored them. The suit further contended the drivers did not immediately call 911 when they first recognized that Curtis needed medical attention, due to a company policy that required them to first contact headquarters. Even then, TransCor operations director Charles Westbrook allegedly directed the drivers to deliver Curtis to the prison instead of a hospital. An autopsy listed heatstroke as Curtis' cause of death, which was designated a homicide.

Numerous documents introduced as evidence in pretrial proceedings were deemed "significant" by Judge Holderman in his decision to allow the application of Tennessee punitive damages law in the case, including records showing that TransCor did not properly inspect its vehicles between trips – many of them long, interstate journeys – as well as a letter from TransCor CEO J. Stephen Kennedy that praised the conduct of the employees involved in the handling of the trip that resulted in Curtis' death.

Judge Holderman found that Tennessee law "has the strongest connection to the facts and circumstances of this case as it relates to the imposition of punitive damages, given that Tennessee was both the site of at least some of the alleged misconduct and is site of TransCor's headquarters." He rejected TransCor's attempt to have Illinois or Indiana law applied to the question of punitive damages by noting that "[t]he location of the injury was somewhat fortuitous in that Joseph had no choice as to how and when he was transported or where he became ill." See: Curtis v. TransCor America, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:10-cv-04570; 2012 WL 1080116.

Following the district court's order, the court issued a published ruling on June 28, 2012 that 1) permitted the plaintiff to pursue punitive damages at trial – a decision that had not been reached in its earlier order – and 2) applied Illinois law as to the determination of compensatory damages. See: Curtis v. TransCor America, 877 F.Supp.2d 578 (N.D. Ill. 2012). The case is scheduled for trial on October 21, 2013 and remains pending, with the court encouraging the parties to engage in settlement discussions.

This is not the first time TransCor has been sued for mistreating prisoners. In 2002, the company paid $5 million to settle a case involving the rape of a female prisoner. [See: PLN, Sept. 2006, p.1]. A 2005 lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota alleged that prisoners were chained to a bench for up to 23 hours a day during a long trip, with little access to water or bathroom facilities for up to 12 hours at a time.

And in February 2010, a federal lawsuit against TransCor involving claims by prisoners who were transported in restraints for more than 24 hours was certified as a class-action. [See: PLN, March 2011, p.34]. However, the district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of TransCor as to the class claims on August 8, 2012; the claims of the named plaintiffs later settled under confidential terms. See: Schilling v. TransCor America, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:08-cv-00941-SI.

A related class-action suit, which raises claims similar to those in Schilling on behalf of prisoners transported by TransCor for more than 59 hours, was filed in federal court on April 8, 2013 and remains pending. See: Cedillo v. TransCor America, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 4:13-cv-01580-YGR.

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Related legal cases

Cedillo v. TransCor America

Curtis v. TransCor America

Schilling v. TransCor America