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Connecticut Prisoner Wins Motion for Sanctions over Destruction of Evidence; Case Settles for $40,000

Connecticut state prisoner Tye Thomas won an important pretrial motion that found employees of the Connecticut Department of Correction (DOC) were “grossly negligent” in failing to preserve key video surveillance footage of assaults he suffered on the recreation yard and in cells at the Northern Correctional Institution. On April 29, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall ruled in Thomas’ favor on a motion for sanctions under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(e).

Thomas alleged in his federal civil rights suit that the defendants had forced him “to remain in the Security Risk Group Unit (“SRG Unit”) for inmates affiliated with the Bloods gang notwithstanding the fact that the defendants were aware that Thomas had switched his allegiance to the rival Crips gang.”

Unfortunately for both Thomas and the DOC defendants, he was assaulted six times in 2012, which were memorialized in six separate incident reports. Thomas’ pro se suit plodded on for two years before the court appointed pro bono counsel, who sought video evidence from the prison’s surveillance camera system. DOC staff, however, had failed to maintain all of the video evidence. Although its written policy stated that such video footage was to be preserved for four years, the facility generally only kept it for 30 days before it was recorded over. Only part of the important surveillance video was preserved even though DOC officials admitted they were aware of the assaults.

The district court “concluded that the failure to preserve the surveillance footage of the September 18, 2012 [assault] was grossly negligent,” and held “the culpability of a grossly negligent state of mind requires a sanction that is correspondingly more severe than would be necessary if the failure to preserve the surveillance footage amounted to run-of-the-mill negligence.” A similar finding was made for an assault that occurred on October 11, 2012. Only the warden of the facility was found culpable with respect to the destruction of evidence.

The district court granted Thomas’ request for a “mandatory adverse inference related to the spoliation of surveillance footage outside the cell and recreation yard” for two of the incidents but denied a similar request for the other four assaults, stated it would “craft the specific instructions at the charging conference.” The court also held that Thomas’ attorney could seek fees related to filing the motion for sanctions.

Apparently realizing they would have difficulty prevailing at trial with an adverse inference jury instruction, the defendants agreed to settle the case in May 2016, one day after the sanctions order was finalized, for $40,000. Thomas was represented by the law firm of Wiggin and Dana LLP. See: Thomas v. Butkiewicus, U.S.D.C. (D. Ct.), Case No. 3:13-cv-00747-JCH. 

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Related legal case

Thomas v. Butkiewicus