Case: Roy D. Hyatt v. GEO Group
Case no: 502009CA018316XXXXMB
Description: Premises negligence
Filing date: May 26, 2009
Jury trial: Sept. 4-12, 2012
Judge: Palm Beach Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley
Plaintiff attorney: Philip G. Thompson, Thompson & Thompson, West Palm Beach
Defense attorneys: Donald A. Chinquina and Robert D. Moses, Wiederhold, Moses & Rubin, West Palm Beach
Jury award: $1.2 million
Details: Roy D. Hyatt was sentenced to 17 years in state prison for a 1997 assault on a man he found in an amorous situation with his fiancee. He was confined at the South Bay Correctional Facility in Palm Beach County. He was in an open bay dormitory used for violent offenders and had been having problems with another inmate, Rodney Smith, who was serving five life sentences.

Smith filled a bowl with water and heated it in a microwave oven that was available to inmates without restrictions Aug. 28, 2007. He walked up behind Hyatt, who was watching television in the day room, and called his name.

When Hyatt turned to look in Smith’s direction, Smith tossed scalding water in Hyatt’s face. He received burns over 30 percent of his body and was blinded in his right eye.

Hyatt sought legal counsel through the Yellow Pages and eventually filed a lawsuit against GEO Group, the company that the Florida Department of Corrections contracted with to run the prison.

Plaintiff case: The case against GEO Group focused on the inmates’ unfettered access to the microwave. It was available to the general population at all hours without supervision even thought there had been previous incidents with microwave-heated liquids in GEO Group prisons and other prison facilities. It was a known and foreseeable danger within the industry, plaintiffs attorney Philip Thompson said.

He documented GEO Group had dealt with microwave-related altercations between inmates at the same prison 11 months earlier and at other prisons in North Carolina and Mississippi since at least 2003. A fourth incident in New York in 2009 was admitted into evidence to show microwave oven access continued to be a hazard.

Expert witness Ron McAndrew, a former warden with 20 years’ experience in Florida prisons, described the situation as a clear breach of security protocols. He noted state-run prisons do not allow such access to microwave ovens.

Dr. Richard Shugarman, the North Palm Beach ophthalmologist who treated Hyatt, said the patient would need to take extraordinary care for the damaged eye for the rest of his life, including eye drops and limited exposure to sunlight. Hyatt was a roofer with limited education, and a vocational specialist testified Hyatt would be relegated to nonskilled employment for the rest of his life. His release date from prison is set for August 2014.

Defense case: Defense counsel Donald Chinquina did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

GEO Group experts included Joe Smith, a retired warden who worked out of state in the federal system. Ernest Stepp, the GEO Group warden in charge of the South Bay prison at the time, also was called. They defended the open access to microwaves as a management tool and a necessary risk for controlling the prison population.

However, Thompson pointed to the case of the Michigan state prison system, where the Michigan Corrections Organization, a union representing more than 10,000 prison workers, protested over prison access to the ovens after a guard was attacked. A compromise was reached where prisoners could still use a microwave, but traffic to it was controlled and supervised.

Outcome: The jury awarded $78,242 for future medical needs and $150,000 for future lost wages. The remainder of the $1.2 million award was for past and future pain and suffering.

Comments: “In May 2011, we filed a proposal to settle for $125,000. It was turned down. Because the judgment was in excess of the offer, we were entitled to tax attorney fees and cost. We filed a motion for that, and the judge ruled in our favor,” Thompson said.

Post-verdict: GEO Group filed motions for remitittur and new trial. A hearing was set for January, but in the meantime the parties reached a confidential settlement. Thompson could only comment that the case has been resolved.