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No Summary Judgment for Private Transportation Company in Maryland Detainee’s Suit Alleging “Horrific” 2,000-Mile Journey

by Keith Sanders

Over nine days in December 2015, during transport from Maryland to South Carolina to face charges he skipped child support payments, William Karn endured a grueling trek stretching more than 2,000 miles while shackled to a metal bench in a van owned and operated by Prisoner Transport Services (PTS) and Brevard Extraditions.

Karn, who was arrested in Maryland’s Montgomery County on a warrant out of Horry County, South Carolina, spent much of that time in handcuffs so tight that he was left with injuries to his wrists, he said. He also alleged deplorable conditions inside the van, with discarded refuse, human waste and flies.

The trip could have been completed in eight hours, but it lasted many times that long, meandering across five states to pick up and drop off other detainees along the way. During one infrequent bathroom stop, Karn fell out and injured his shoulder. But transporting guards refused him medical attention he said. When a fight erupted in the van, all the detainees were sprayed with a chemical agent and not allowed to wash it off afterwards.

On September 16, 2016, Karn filed a federal civil rights action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. Proceeding under 42 U.S.C. §1983, he accused PTS and Brevard of deprivation and negligence in violation of his rights under the Fourth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Defendants promptly filed for summary judgment.

On September 19, 2017, the Court dismissed all claims except one: a Fourteenth Amendment claim against “John Doe” defendants. Karn was allowed to engage in discovery in order to identify them and amend his complaint to add specific allegations against them.

That amended complaint then fleshed out claims of negligence, lack of training and negligent supervision against defendants PTS, Brevard and its employee James Lebron. The Court took testimony from an expert witness for Plaintiff to establish the standard of care he was due. After that, it employed the two-pronged test for deliberate indifference from Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994): Was Karn deprived of a basic human need? And if so, did significant emotional or physical injury result?

The answer to both was “yes,” based on alleged conditions in the van sufficiently horrific for U.S. District Judge George Hazel to rule on March 11, 2022 that the evidence “provides support for [Karn’s] allegations that the van drove during the night, [and] that there were few bathroom breaks.” GPS data also supported Karn’s claims that the guards drove at dangerously high speeds up to 97 mph, swerving erratically and causing detainees to be thrown against the wall and floor because there were no seatbelts on the van.

Consequently, the Court denied summary judgment to Defendants PTS, Brevard and Lebron, in his personal capacity, on Plaintiff’s claims of unsanitary conditions, inadequate bathroom breaks, water and food, as well as unreasonable use of chemical agents and excessively tight restraints. The Court also denied summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligent supervision and training claims. See: Karn v. PTS of Am., LLC, 590 F. Supp. 3d 780 (D. Md. 2022).

The case is now assigned to Judge Lydia Kay Griggsby, who accepted the parties’ most recent status report on May 2, 2023. As it laid out, they are headed to trial in April 2024. PLN will continue to report developments as they are available. Karn is represented by attorneys Jay P. Holland, Alyse L. Prawde and Timothy F. Malone of Joseph Greenwald and Laake PA in Greenbelt, with co-counsel from Rockville attorney Lawrence R. Holzman. See: Karn v. PTS of Am., LLC, USDC (D. Md.), Case No. 8:16-cv-03261.