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After Lengthy HRDC Litigation, GEO Group Gives Up Documents Revealing $10 Million Settlement for Death of Texas Prisoner

by Matt Clarke

On March 8, 2022, PLN finally obtained documents revealing that private prison operator GEO Group, Inc., formerly known as Wackenhut Corrections Corp., paid $10 million to settle two lawsuits brought by the family of a prisoner who was murdered at a Texas jail the firm operated. The family had been awarded $47.5 million after a 2006 Texas jury trial. [See: PLN, Feb. 2007, p. 34.] Of that, $42.5 million was upheld by a Texas appellate court in April 2009. [See: PLN, June 2009, p. 10.] GEO Group’s settlement in December 2009 was for an amount considerably less.

The detainee, Gregorio de la Rosa, Jr, was an honorably discharged National Guardsman serving a six-month sentence at the Willacy County State Jail for possession of less than a gram of cocaine. Four days away from release, he was brutally beaten to death by two other prisoners, each using a padlock tied to a sock.

Those prisoners had been permitted to pass through a control gate without a pat search, in violation of prison policy. A guard noticed the two prisoners were not searched and watched as they followed de la Rosa into a broad, 100-yard-long walkway that connected the jail’s buildings, where he was beaten and kicked for 15 to 20 minutes in full sight of other guards who made no attempt to intervene. A teacher begged some nearby guards to intervene, but they refused.

The first guard later testified that he was prevented from entering the walkway to break up the fight, so he believed the murder was a “hit,” in which other guards had been paid off to permit the attack. Still more guards testified that locks were easily found during a pat search, and de la Rosa would not have been killed had policy been followed. Multiple witnesses, including prison staff, testified that Warden David Forrest and Assistant Warden Elberto Bravo laughed about the murder.

De la Rosa survived the initial attack and remained conscious, but it took over an hour for medical personnel to arrive. He died during emergency surgery due to internal bleeding.

When his family sued, GEO Group tampered with evidence, losing or deleting videotapes of the assault and its aftermath. That prompted the judge to give the jury a spoilation of evidence instruction that they should assume the missing evidence would have been to the firm’s detriment. Warden Forrest also gave contradictory testimony.

The jury found that Defendants had acted with malice and gross negligence and awarded the de la Rosa family a total of $47.5 million in damages, including punitive damages of $20 million against GEO Group and $500,000 against Forrest. The court also awarded $7,000 in funeral expenses and $511 in EMS expenses. GEO appealed.

The court of appeals upheld most of the award. It determined that $5 million awarded to de la Rosa’s father was improper as he was deceased, and wrongful death claims do not survive the plaintiff’s death. It also found the $7,000 funeral expense award was improper as no proof of the cost of the funeral had been offered. But it upheld the remaining $42.5 million of the award.

The court called the conduct of GEO Group and Warden Forrest “clearly reprehensible and, frankly, a disgusting display of disrespect for the welfare of others and this State’s civil judicial system.” Moreover, GEO Group’s “conduct in maliciously causing Gregorio’s death and thereafter spoliating critical evidence so offends this Court’s sense of justice that a high ratio [of punitive damages to actual damages] is warranted.”

Excluding what was improperly awarded the deceased father, the actual damages awarded totaled $8.5 million: $2.5 to the mother and $2 million each for three daughters. So, less than a year later, GEO Group settled for a bit more than the actual damages.

The firm tried to keep the details a secret, denying repeated records requests and then fighting a legal battle from the fall of 2018 until it turned over the documents in March 2022 to the Human Rights Defense Center, publisher of PLN and Criminal Legal News. But in the end, those documents revealed that GEO Group paid out $10 million in total, including $1.3 million to each family member and $4.8 million to their attorneys, Ronald Rodriguez of Laredo, Craig S. Smith of Corpus Christi, and Gilbert Hinojosa of Brownsville. See: De la Rosa v. Wackenhut Corr. Corp., Tex. Dist. (Willacy Cty.), Case Nos. 02-110 and 2006CV-305A.


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Related legal case

De la Rosa v. Wackenhut Corr. Corp.