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Brett Curtis, As Heir At Law and Administrator of the Estate of v. Transcor America

June 28, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James F. Holderman, Chief Judge:


Plaintiff Brett Lee Curtis ("Plaintiff") brings this wrongful death action against defendant TransCor America, LLC ("TransCor"), a prisoner transport company, alleging that TransCor is liable for damages resulting from the death of Plaintiff's father, Joseph Curtis ("Curtis"), while in TransCor's custody on June 23, 2009. Pending before the court are three motions related to Curtis's requested relief. For the reasons stated herein, "Plaintiff's Motion for Determination of Choice of Law Relating to the Issues of Liability and Compensatory Damages" (Dkt. No. 155) is granted; "Plaintiff's Motion to Allow Punitive Damage Relief Under Rule 54(c)" (Dkt. No. 169) is granted; and "Defendant TransCor America, LLC's Motion for Application of Indiana Law on Liability and Compensatory Damages and Inapplicability of Rule 54(c) Relief" (Dkt. No. 171) is denied.


The court begins by noting that the two parties have differed in their procedural approaches to the choice of law question now pending before the court. TransCor approached the choice of law question as "dispositive," and filed a Local Rule 56.1(a)(3) statement of material facts in support of its motion. Plaintiff did not file a statement of material facts, nor did Plaintiff file a Local Rule 56.1(b)(3) response to TransCor's statement. Despite this procedural confusion, the court has been able to sort through the briefing and exhibits submitted by the parties to determine that the following facts are undisputed, unless otherwise noted.

A. Events in Kansas and Missouri On the morning of June 23, 2009, at approximately 1:20 a.m., federal prisoner Joseph Curtis boarded a TransCor vehicle in Leavenworth, Kansas for transport to the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana ("FCC Terre Haute"). The driver of the TransCor vehicle (which is known as a "Transporter") was TransCor employee Wanda Robinson. Also aboard the Transporter were TransCor employees Kenneth Boyd, Glenn Evans, and Kirby Jeffreys.*fn1 Prisoners aboard the Transporter included Thomas Casey, Dennis Coleman, Robert Davisson, Daniel Dexter, Terrance Hayes, Russell Harrison, Adam Kaminski, and seventeen others, along with Joseph Curtis. The Transporter, which included both a cab and a "prisoner and agent compartment" approximately the size of a motor home, was equipped with two rooftop air conditioning units.

The parties dispute whether TransCor employees knew at the time the Transporter left Leavenworth that one of the two air conditioning units was broken. Boyd and Evans both testified at their depositions that they became aware of this fact sometime during transit, at which point they called TransCor's headquarters. (See Def.'s Ex. 23 ("Boyd Dep.") at 66-67; Def.'s Ex. 26 ("Evans Dep.") at 39, 42-43.) On the other hand, prisoner Casey recalled a TransCor officer telling the inmates in Leavenworth, "You boys are going to have a long ride. There's no air-conditioning in the bus." (Pl.'s Ex. 6 & 3A*fn2 ("Casey Dep.") at 5.) Similarly, prisoner Dexter testified that "[the guards] said that's why they were picking us up in the middle of the night, because the air conditioning wasn't working so well." (Pl.'s Ex. 5 ("Dexter Dep.") at 17.) Prisoner Harrison testified that the "TransCor people" were "sitting there telling us that the air conditioner is broke when they're picking us up from Leavenworth and it would take too long to get another bus here, so they're going to go ahead and transport us." (Pl.'s Ex. 7 ("Harrison Dep.") at 10.)*fn3

From approximately 1:20 a.m. until 6:10 a.m., the Transporter traveled from Leavenworth, Kansas, across Missouri along Interstate-70, and into southern Illinois.*fn4 About thirty minutes into the trip, in Kansas City, Kansas, the Transporter stopped for a driver change, and Jeffreys took over driving responsibilities from Robinson.

Prisoner Kaminski testified that "several times . . . during the night," Curtis "was complaining to the officer that he had a hard time breathing." (Pl.'s Ex. 9 ("Kaminski Dep.") at 10.) According to Kaminski, a black, male officer came to the back of the vehicle while in transit and "just looked at Curtis, and he just said he's going to be okay. It's not -- just breathe, and that's it." (Id. at 11.) At the time, Curtis was "very white." (Id.)

B. Events in Illinois

Shortly after crossing the Missouri/Illinois border, the Transporter stopped at a McDonald's in Pontoon Beach, Illinois, to refuel and to allow the prisoners to use the restroom and have breakfast. According to prisoner Coleman, who was seated directly behind Curtis, Curtis did not eat or drink anything during the McDonald's stop. (Pl.'s Ex. 8 ("Coleman Dep.") at 23.)

Boyd gave Curtis his medications at approximately 6:45 a.m., and Curtis signed a form to indicate that he had, in fact, received his medications. (Def.'s SEALED Ex.28.) Prisoner Coleman recalls that, when the guards came around to pick up the McDonald's trash, Curtis told a TransCor guard, "I need my medications. I don't feel good.," and the guard responded, "We don't have any more for you." (Coleman Dep. at 26.) Boyd does not recall speaking to any prisoner about the prisoner not getting all of his medications. (Boyd Dep. at 51-52.) Prisoner Casey testified that, during the McDonald's stop, Curtis was "at the stage of asphyxiation, maybe" with "foam coming out of his mouth and white mucus coming out of his nose," and that the guards were informed of Curtis's status. (Casey Dep. at 7.)

Around 7:42 a.m., Evans called TransCor trip manager, John Steidinger. to inform him that the back air conditioning unit was not cooling. (Boyd Dep. at 66-67; Evans Dep. at 42-43; Pl.'s Ex. 4 ("Steidinger Dep.") at 8-10.) Steidinger referred the call to his supervisor, Charles Westbrook. (Steidinger Dep. at 10-11.) Westbrook decided to have the agents continue the trip, because time to replace the vehicle would take longer than the remaining travel time to Terre Haute. (Id. at 11.) At that time, the temperature was approximately 85° F. At approximately 7:53 a.m., after the McDonald's stop, the Transporter resumed its trip.

The Transporter next made a scheduled stop at the federal prison in Greenville, Illinois, to drop off three prisoners. During the stop at Greenville, prisoner Hayes, who was sitting next to Curtis and was chained to him, noticed that Curtis was "sleeping at some times" and "sweating bad," but did not appear to be in any kind of medical distress. (Pl.'s Ex. 10 ("Hayes Dep.") at 18.) The Transporter departed from Greenville at approximately 9:12 a.m. The outside temperature was 86° F.

After leaving the prison in Greenville, the Transporter continued eastward from Greenville along I-70 for approximately 90 miles before crossing into Indiana. During this time, Robinson and Evans were in the sleeper berths and Boyd was on duty supervising the prisoners. Jeffreys was in the cab of the vehicle, which is a separate compartment with a separate air conditioning unit. The peak temperature recorded along the Transporter's route on June 23, 2009 was 91° F.

C. Events with Location in Dispute

The specific location and timing of the following events are in dispute. It is undisputed, however, that TransCor guards were notified that Curtis was in distress sometime after leaving the detention center in Greenville, Illinois, and before stopping in a parking lot at the Honey Creek Shopping Center (the "Mall") in Terre Haute, Indiana.

According to prisoner Coleman, at some point "about a half hour or so" after the guards came by to pick-up the McDonald's trash, and after the Greenville stop, Curtis "became totally unresponsive." (Coleman Dep. at 27.) Coleman then left his seat and told a TransCor guard "I think he's dying or something . . . This old man is really bad.," and he asked the guard to "come check him out." (Id.) The guard responded that he would "be back there in a few minutes." (Id.) As he was returning to his seat, Coleman noticed that Curtis was "white as a ghost . . . you could see a little blue around his ears, around his cheeks . . . [with] a grayish or a blackish color to the blue." (Id. at 76-77.) Coleman then attempted to talk to Curtis through the gap between the seats. (Id. at 28.) He heard Curtis exhale loudly, and did not see Curtis move again. (Id.) Coleman testified that a white, male TransCor guard came back to Curtis's seat about ten or fifteen minutes after speaking to Coleman, checked for Curtis's pulse, and poured a bottle of water on the back of Curtis's neck. (Id. at 29, 76.) The guard stated that they would be in Terre Haute "in about an hour and a half." (Id. at 29.) Similarly, prisoner Davisson testified that Curtis "slumped over" in his seat "probably around 9-ish, between 9 and 10, I believe." (Pl.'s Ex. 6A ("Davisson Dep.") at 14.)

Prisoner Hayes noticed Curtis begin to shake "right after leaving Greenville." (Hayes Dep. at 19.) Hayes estimated that the seizures lasted "about two long minutes." (Id. at 59.)

Hayes notified a guard of Curtis's distress,*fn5 and the guard came back "a couple minutes later." (Id. at 20, 59.) At that point, the guard unhooked Hayes from Curtis, and moved Hayes to a different seat. (Id. at 20.) According to Hayes, it was "at least 20 minutes" after Curtis began to shake that the Transporter stopped in the parking lot of the Mall. (Pl.'s Add'l Exhibits, Ex. 8 ("Hayes Add'l Dep.") at 19, 21.)*fn6

According to prisoner Kaminski, at some point during the transit, various prisoners "started yelling at the guards that [Curtis] doesn't look so good." (Kaminski Dep. at 14.) The prisoners told the guards to "call an ambulance," saying things like, "The guy's dying. He's white. He doesn't move. He's not moving. He's not breathing." (Id. at 15, 17.) Kaminski observed at that time that Curtis was not moving or breathing. (Id. at 17.) The TransCor guards responded that they would be in Terre Haute in "about a half an hour" or "in a little while." (Id. at 14-15.) About half an hour later, the Transporter stopped at the Mall. (Id. at 16-17.)

According to prisoner Casey, "for about an hour, [Curtis's] breathing was labored. And after about 15 minutes, we called for help." (Casey Dep. at 23.) Casey testified that "everybody was getting kind of riled up on the bus," yelling that "[t]he guy's dying." (Id. at 10.) Casey estimates that it was over an hour later that the Transporter stopped in the Mall parking lot. (Id. at 11.)*fn7

Prisoner Harrison estimated that approximately half an hour passed between the time the prisoners started yelling about Curtis's condition and the time the Transporter stopped in the Mall parking lot. (Harrison Dep. at 15-16.)

Boyd testified that he checked on Curtis after hearing a prisoner "yell out." (Boyd Dep. at 59.) Boyd first "hollered for Master Sergeant Evans to get up out of the bunk," and then proceeded to enter the secured prisoner area. (Id. at 59-60.) Boyd then unhooked Hayes and had him move to another seat, and "did a pulse" and "checked on [Curtis's] chest, listening for a heart beat, and to see if I could feel a breath of air on my cheek." (Id. at 60.) At that point, Boyd "felt a breath on [his] cheek," as well as "a weak pulse." (Id. at 71, 73.) Boyd poured water on Curtis, but Curtis was "unresponsive." (Id. at 64.) Curtis remained unresponsive "the whole time" that Boyd was with him, from Hayes's initial shout until the Transporter arrived at FCC Terre Haute. (Id. at 81.) Boyd did not notice any perspiration on Curtis. (Id. at 72.) Regarding the location and timing of these events, Boyd recalled that, at the time he entered the secured prisoner area, the Transporter "was easing to a stop" and "had already pulled off into the parking lot area." (Boyd Dep. at 60-61.) Boyd also testified via affidavit that, "[a]t the time the transporter entered the state of Indiana, there had been no notification of prisoner Curtis being overheated or in a distressed medical condition." (Def.'s Ex. 32 ("Boyd Aff.") ¶ 7.)

Evans, who was in the sleeping berth, recalls that "around 11:00" a prisoner "shouted out . . . that one of the inmates was having a seizure." (Evans Dep. at 46.) He allowed Boyd to "go back in the back to see what was going on," and then watched Boyd as he checked on Curtis. (Id. at 47.) Evans also called trip management, as well as his supervisor, Westbrook. (Id. at 49- 50.) As Evans recalled, "[a]t the time, we were very close to the facility. And after [Westbrook] having a conversation with whomever he had a conversation with, he directed me to go ahead on to the facility." (Id. at 50-51.) Evans then called FCC Terre Haute and "explained to them that we had a medical emergency." (Id. at 52.)*fn8 Like Boyd, Evans testified via affidavit that, "[a]t the time the transporter entered the state of Indiana, there had been no notification of prisoner Curtis being overheated or in a distressed medical condition." (Def.'s Ex. 33 ("Evans Aff.") ¶ 10.)

Jeffreys, who was driving the Transporter, recalled that "the officer in charge*fn9 instructed [him] to pull over, that someone was feeling ill." (Def.'s Ex. 27 ("Jeffreys Dep.") at 14.) Jeffreys stated that this happened "around 11:00" and took place "when we were in Indiana." (Id. at 14-15.)

D. Events in Indiana

TransCor's Director of Planning, James Crouch, filed an affidavit interpreting the data generated by the Transporter's GPS tracking system. (Def.'s Ex. 14 ("Crouch Aff.").)*fn10

According to Crouch's interpretation of the data, the Transporter crossed the state line between Illinois and Indiana on I-70 at 10:57:19 a.m. (Id. ¶ 10.) At 11:04:54 a.m., the Transporter stopped at the bottom of the Exit 7 off-ramp from I-70 to US-150 in Terre Haute, Indiana. (Id. ¶ 11.) At 11:06:07 a.m., the Transporter made an unexpected stop on the shoulder of US-150 for 11 seconds. (Id. ¶ 12.) At 11:07:06 a.m., the Transporter stopped in the Mall parking lot. (Id. ¶ 13.)

After stopping at the Mall parking lot, Jeffreys drove the Transporter to FCC Terre Haute, which was at that point just two miles away. (Jeffreys Dep. at 20-21.) Jeffreys estimated that it took "probably less than five" minutes to get to the prison from the Mall. (Id. at 21.) Crouch opined that the Transporter left the Mall parking lot at 11:09:46 a.m., and arrived at the parking lot outside FCC Terre Haute at 11:16:21 a.m. (Id. ¶¶ 14-15.)

It is undisputed that after the Transporter arrived at FCC Terre Haute, it took approximately 18 minutes for the Transporter to drive to the rear gate and clear security. (Def.'s SMF ¶ 23.) BOP medical personnel then boarded the Transporter, assessed Curtis's vital signs, and transferred him to the prison's urgent care center after performing CPR. Dr. Thomas Webster, who worked in the urgent care center, testified that Curtis was "deader than a doornail" by the time Dr. Webster saw him. (Pl.'s Ex. 18 ("Webster Dep.") at 13.)

Virgo County Coroner Roland M. Kohr performed an autopsy on Curtis on June 24, 2009. In his report, Dr. Kohr noted that Curtis had been exposed to "prolonged heat exposure in a non-air conditioned bus" and concluded that the cause of Curtis's death was "heat stroke." (Pl.'s Ex. 1 ("Autopsy") at 1.) The Certificate of Death states that the "approximate interval: onset to death" was "hours," but also states that Curtis's ...

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