by Eike Blohm
After turning down offers to settle for far less, South Carolina’s Aiken County wound up on the losing side of a $150,000 verdict on November 4, 2022, after a state court jury found that a guard at the county lockup crushed a detainee’s scrotum during a rough pat-down. No criminal charges have been filed in the incident. But following the verdict, long-time Sheriff Michael Hunt announced in January 2023 that he would not seek re-election to a sixth term.
Otis Owens was detained at Aiken County Detention Center in late January 2017 when he returned from the recreation yard and was subjected to a pat-down. Guard Timothy Gibson bizarrely probed Owens’ belly button before running his hands up Owens’ legs, grabbing his scrotum and testicles and squeezing hard.
Left in pain, Owens requested medical treatment. But he didn’t receive any until after his release. On February 24, 2017, according to the complaint he later filed, “a sonogram revealed that [he] had sustained injuries to his groin and that fluid had accumulated around his testicles.”
While sonography cannot distinguish between types of fluid – it may be blood, seminal fluid or another serous fluid accumulation – the presence of free fluid where there should not be any, especially a month after the original injury, was testimony to significant trauma.
With the assistance of Greenville attorney Joshua Hawkins of Hawkins and Jedziniak, Owens filed suit in state Court of Common Pleas for the Second Judicial Circuit in June 2017 against Hunt, his jail and the county. For his tort claim to succeed, Owens had to show that the Defendants had a duty toward him, that the duty was breached in a grossly negligent manner, and that he sustained injury and damages as a direct and proximate result of the breach.
Jail staff has the duty to exercise due care toward prisoners, as would be expected from any prudent and reasonable person, the complaint noted. In addition, there is a duty to act with expected knowledge and skill. Both duties were breached, Owens said, when the guard assaulted and battered him with excessive force; when Owens was then denied access to medical care and treatment; and when, during the investigation, Owens was threatened and denied access to basic needs such as food and bathroom access. Owens also accused the sheriff of failure to adequately hire, train, and supervise his jail guards.
Hunt and the county turned down an offer to settle for $75,000 in 2018 and another for $100,000 in 2021. Meanwhile Defense attorneys unsuccessfully attempted to keep the sheriff from being deposed. That motion was defeated in June 2022, clearing the way for a trial that began on October 31, 2022.
Defendants offered a last-minute settlement for $15,000, but that was rejected. The jury then heard the case and awarded Owens 10 times that amount, finding Hunt and his jailers grossly negligent in Owens’ supervision and confinement. See: Owens v. Hunt, S.C. Common Pleas (2nd Jud. Cir.), Case No. 2017-CP-02-01413.
A separate civil rights claim filed by Owens in state court accused Gibson of fabricating an allegation that Owens and another detainee were playing with contraband dice, which Gibson used as a pretext for the assault, while other deputies watched and did nothing. Hawkins attempted to merge his client’s two suits, but Defendants removed the second complaint to federal court for the District of South Carolina in December 2019. That court then granted Defendants summary judgment on all claims except one for excessive force against Gibson on June 15, 2022. See: Owens v. Gibson, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 107532 (D.S.C.).
After the jury verdict, Defendants moved the state court for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV) or a new trial or remittitur of the verdict. That motion was denied on December 2, 2022, with the exception of JNOV as to Aiken County, which was removed as a defendant.
The federal court stayed proceedings against Gibson on December 16, 2022, giving Hunt and the jail time to appeal the state jury verdict and denial of JNOV. See: Owens v. Gibson, USDC (D.S.C.), Case No. 9:19-cv-03411.
Hunt then filed his appeal in state Court of Appeals on March 6, 2023. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Owens v. Hunt, S.C. Ct. of Appeals, Case No. 2023-000009.
Additional sources: Aiken Chronicles, Charleston Post & Courier, WRDW
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