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$250,000 Settlement in Assault Upon Luzerne County Detainee

by David M. Reutter

A former Pennsylvania pretrial detainee who sustained serious injuries from a guard’s use of excessive force received a $250,000 settlement.

As guard Christopher Refner was making rounds at the Luzerne County Correctional Facility on June 28, 2016, he smelled marijuana and began to investigate. He determined its source came from the cell occupied by pretrial detainee Edward Hernandez and his cellmate.

To corroborate his suspicions, he decided to have them and another detainee undergo urinalysis drug testing, which was done in another part of the jail.

As Refner was escorting them to that location, Hernandez and Refner “engaged in back-and-forth banter” about Hernandez’s use of marijuana. As the exchanges continued and became more heated, Refner decided it was necessary to handcuff Hernandez, and he ordered him to put his hands on the wall.

According to the civil rights complaint, Hernandez was successfully handcuffed.

Refner then pulled Hernandez’s “arms up towards the middle of the back,” causing him “extreme pain as a result of a prior shoulder injury.” After Hernandez complained about this treatment, Refner “unleashed a violent assault” upon Hernandez.

Refner allegedly wrapped his arms around Hernandez, proceeded to lift him in the air, and slammed him head first onto the concrete floor. Hernandez sustained a broken neck, ruptured discs in the cervical area, and required 28 stitches to his scalp.

Luzerne County argued in court pleadings that Hernandez “continued to resist, struggle, exhibit violent conduct, and disobey orders.” It asserted that behavior forced “Corporal Refner … to use reasonable and necessary force.” Video of the incident was provided to Hernandez and the county’s insurance company, but it was not distributed publicly due to “prison safety issues.”

The complaint cited three different lawsuits that alleged Refner used excessive force while a police officer or as a jail guard, which showed he “has a record and assaultive behavior towards citizens and inmates.”

At a May 14, 2019, meeting, the Luzerne County Council approved the $250,000 settlement. It will pay $50,000 as an insurance deductible and its insurance company will pay the remainder. Hernandez was represented by attorney Matthew T. Comerford. See: Hernandez v. Luzerne County, USDC, D. Pennsylvania, Case No. 1:16-cv-02407. 

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Related legal case

Hernandez v. Luzerne County