A Florida jury has awarded a prisoner $1.2 million in a negligence suit against the GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison company, following a trial that was delayed more than a year after a juror said he was afraid to reach a verdict.
The case stemmed from an August 28, 2007 argument between prisoners Roy D. Hyatt and Rodney Smith in the dayroom of their unit at the South Bay Correctional Facility. Following the spat, Smith used a microwave to boil a container of water. He then returned to the dayroom and threw the water on Hyatt, who sustained first- and second-degree burns to approximately 30% of his body and lost the use of one eye.
Hyatt sued GEO in state court, alleging the company was aware of other incidents in which prisoners had used microwaves to boil water to assault other prisoners.
Hyatt’s complaint, filed by attorney Philip G. Thompson, claimed that GEO had breached its duty of care by allowing prisoners unrestricted “access to microwaves to boil water which could be used as a weapon against other inmates.” The suit also alleged that it was reasonably foreseeable that the incident involving Hyatt and Smith could occur, since GEO did not remove or restrict prisoners’ access to microwaves.
On May 10, 2011, shortly before the trial in the case was to begin, a juror told Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley that he feared for his safety if he returned a verdict against Hyatt.
“I’m worried about reprisals against my family,” the juror said. At the time, Hyatt was serving 17 years for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and was not due to be released for another three years, but the juror stated he was afraid Hyatt’s friends might hunt him down.
“This is a unique one for me,” said Kelley. “I’ve never had a juror in the civil division express concerns about his safety.”
Thompson argued that the juror’s concerns were baseless. If people could get out of jury duty by claiming they were scared, he said, then havoc would reign in the justice system.
“I agree with you,” Kelley replied. “If we excuse jurors based on fear of retaliation, we’d never have any criminal trials.”
But when the juror said he couldn’t be impartial, Judge Kelley stated he had no choice but to declare a mistrial because no alternate jurors were selected and the jury did not have enough members left to hear the case.
After the trial was rescheduled and held 16 months later, the jury found GEO Group liable for Hyatt’s injuries. The panel awarded Hyatt $1,228,242, including $78,242 for future medical expenses, $150,000 for lost earning ability in the future, and $1 million for past and future “pain and suffering, disability or physical impairment, disfigurement, mental anguish, inconvenience, aggravation of a disease or physical defect, or loss of capacity for the enjoyment of life.” Hyatt had offered to settle before trial for $125,000.
GEO filed a motion for a new trial, but the parties subsequently agreed to a settlement and stipulated to dismiss the case. See: Hyatt v. The GEO Group,Fifteenth Judicial Circuit Court (FL), Case No. 50-2009-CA-018316.
Additional source: Palm Beach Post
(Reprinted with Permission from Prison Legal News)