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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Heat Stroke Case May End in Punitive Damages

CHICAGO (CN) - A prisoner-transportation company may have to pay punitive damages if it loses a wrongful death suit over an inmate who died of heatstroke, a federal judge ruled.

On June 23, 2009, Joseph Curtis was transported from the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., through Illinois, to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

The temperature that day was 95 degrees, and the TransCor America van bringing Joseph to Terre Haute had a broken air conditioner.

Joseph passed out en route and died later that day. The autopsy listed heatstroke as cause of death, a homicide.

Brett Curtis, Joseph's son, filed suit for negligence and wrongful death.

Curtis contended that TransCor management decided to continue the trip even though it knew about the broken air conditioner and the lack of a thermometer in the prisoner compartment. He also claimed that TransCor employees ignored other prisoners who indicated Joseph was in distress.

When Joseph became unconscious, TransCor operations director Charles Westbrook allegedly directed the drivers to bring the inmate to the prison rather than a hospital.

Though the case is pending in the Northern District of Illinois, Curtis asked the court to consider punitive damages under Tennessee law, which permits such awards in wrongful-death cases. TransCor is headquartered in Tennessee.

U.S. District Judge James Holderman granted Curtis' motion, finding that "Tennessee law has the strongest connection to the facts and circumstances of this case as it relates to the imposition of punitive damages given that Tennessee was both the site of at least some of the alleged misconduct and is site of TransCor's headquarters."

"The location of the injury was somewhat fortuitous in that Joseph had no choice as to how and when he was transported or where he became ill," Holderman wrote. "Nor is it solely TransCor's conduct in Illinois and Indiana that is at issue here. Curtis alleges that his father's death was the culmination of oversights and poor decisions by TransCor employees in Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois."

"Illinois and Indiana have an interest in the application of their punitive damages law to a company that regularly does business in their states, but that interest is lessened where Joseph was not a resident of either state, and where the location of Joseph's injury was to a certain degree fortuitous," the March 29 decision states. "As a whole, the court finds that Tennessee has a stronger connection to the facts and circumstances of Joseph's death than does Illinois or Indiana, and that this connection is sufficient to overcome any presumption that the law of the place of injury should apply."

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