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Tenth Circuit Rules on $3.38 Million Verdict in CCA Prison Sexual Abuse Case

In February 2012, a federal jury in New Mexico awarded $3.38 million to three female prisoners who were raped by Anthony Townes, a guard at the Camino Nuevo Women’s Correctional Facility, which was operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Townes, who had previously pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting the women, was sentenced to 16 years in prison. [See: PLN, April 2012, p.1; Jan. 2010, p.50].

The verdict was entered in a lawsuit brought by prisoners Heather Spurlock, Nina Carrera and Sophia Carrasco against CCA, Townes and former warden Barbara Wagner. The suit was filed in 2009, one year after the Camino Nuevo prison closed.

Evidence presented by the plaintiffs highlighted the egregious nature of Townes’ misconduct; he would remove prisoners from their cells and take them to an area of the facility where he knew he “would not be recorded or observed by surveillance cameras,” then raped and sexually assaulted them repeatedly.

The district court had ruled before trial that Townes was liable for violating the plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and it was up to the jury to determine damages as well as liability for CCA and Wagner.

The verdict in favor of the plaintiffs included $325,000 in compensatory damages, $3 million in punitive damages against Townes, and $55,000 in punitive damages against CCA and Wagner. The district court also awarded $189,662 in attorney fees and costs. See: Spurlock v. Townes, U.S.D.C. (D. NM), Case No. 1:09-cv-00786-WJ-SMV.

Daniel Struck, CCA’s attorney, had argued that at least one of the prisoners had consensual sex with Townes – an argument that was rejected by the jurors. However, the jury did find that Spurlock and Carrasco were comparatively negligent, which served to reduce their damage awards. Spurlock had testified that Townes would threaten both her and her children when he sexually abused her.

“He raped me not once, but many times over a period of time. And the more he did it, the more arrogant he became with it, demeaning me and everything I had worked so hard to become,” she stated when Townes was sentenced.

Both parties appealed the jury verdict, and in 2014 the Tenth Circuit asked New Mexico’s Supreme Court to answer a certified question regarding the issue of comparative negligence with respect to compensatory damages. On March 14, 2016, the Supreme Court rejected CCA’s argument that the plaintiffs could be found contributorily negligent, holding that “under New Mexico law CCA and Wagner are vicariously liable for all compensatory damages caused by the corrections-officer employee when he was aided in accomplishing his assaults by his agency relationship with CCA and Wagner who were his employers.” See: Spurlock v. Townes, 2016-NMSC-014, 368 P.3d 1213 (N.M. 2016).

Following that determination, the Tenth Circuit issued a complex ruling on September 12, 2016 which held that N.M. Stat. Ann. § 33-1-17 does not require CCA to pay the full judgment against Townes. Further, the appellate court reversed “the district court’s grant of summary judgment for Defendants on the vicarious-liability claim,” and ordered the court on remand “to enter judgment in favor of all Plaintiffs on that claim against Defendant CCA, and to award them full compensatory damages.”

The Court of Appeals also vacated the attorney fees and costs awarded by the district court in favor of the plaintiffs, and remanded for a new determination of the fees and costs. Additionally, the Tenth Circuit remanded for the lower court to determine whether the plaintiffs are entitled to punitive damages on their vicarious-liability claim. See: Spurlock v. Townes, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16853 (10th Cir. 2016).

Following remand the parties agreed to settle the case, bringing to a close yet another sordid chapter in CCA’s history involving sexual abuse of prisoners. PLN has previously reported other sexual abuse scandals involving the company, including the systemic abuse of prisoners at CCA’s Otter Creek Correctional Center in Wheelwright, Kentucky that led two states – Hawaii and Kentucky – to remove all of their female prisoners from the facility. [See: PLN, Sept. 2011, p.16; Oct. 2009, p.40].

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Spurlock v. Townes

Spurlock v. Townes