2009-04-08 / Front Page

Appeals Court upholds $42.5 million wrongful death suit against Wackenhut

The 13th District State Court of Appeals in Edinburg upheld the wrongful death conviction against the Wackenhut Corp., now GEO Corp., in the death of Gregorio De La Rosa, Jr.

De La Rosa was serving a six month sentence for the possess-ion of cocaine at the Willacy State Jail when he was attacked by two other inmates and beaten to death with a padlock in a sock on April 26, 2001.

At that time Wackenhut Corp. was the operator of the 1000 bed facility through a contract with the State of Texas.

De la Rosa was attacked as he walked along a 100-yardlong sidewalk on his way to the pharmacy. He was attacked by fellow inmates Pedro Equia and Daniel Sanchez shortly after they passed out of their housing area and through a gate where they should have been pat searched.

Corrections Officer Raul Hernandez was stationed at the gate and he testified that although he checked the inmates "passes" to ensure they were authorized to leave the housing unit, he did not pat search Eguia or Sanchez. He said that he done so he would have found the lock.

Hernandez said he saw one of the inmates hit De La Rosa in the head with the sock and saw him fall to the ground unconscious. "He didn't have a chance at all," said Hernandez, who then saw Equia and Sanchez kicking the victim.

Officer Juan Cortez testified that he also saw the attack on De La Rosa, and said "the first hit with the sock knocked him out."

Cortez testified the beating lasted 15 to 20 minutes and that it took an hour and fifteen minutes for medical personnel to arrive even though they were employed by Wackenhut and were at the facility at the time.

Cortez said it was 45 minutes later when Warden David Forrest and Asst. Warden Elberto Bravo arrived. He claimed that he believes the assault was a hit on De La Rosa and that Wackenhut employees knew it was going to happen.

Major Sangster testified that padlocks can be purchased by inmates in the commisary and are used to lock up their personal belongings. Both Warden Forrest and Major Sangster testified that other assaults had occured in the same area earlier and Forrest testified that Equia had assaulted another inmate a few months earlier.

Emergency Room M.D. Robert Sims of Valley Baptist Medical Center, Harlingen, testified that he treated De La Rosa and that he died as the result of the beating. More than one fourth of his blood had spilled into his body cavity because of internal injuries, Dr. Sims testified. De La Rosa died during surgery.

The trial jury assigned 75 percent of the blame for De La Rosa's death to Wackenhut and 25 percent to Warden Forrest. The jury awarded $20 million in punitive damages against Wackenhut and $500,000 in punitive damages against Forrest. Catalina De La Rosa (the victim's mother) was awarded $10 million for mental anguish, and loss of companionship.

Gregorio De La Rosa's three daughters were awarded $4 million each for mental anguish and loss of companionship.

The Appeals Court reversed the trial court and dismissed $7,511 awarded for funeral expenses and also reversed and dismissed a $5 million award from the trial court to the estate of Gregorio De La Rosa's father, who is deceased.

Wackenhut argued that the attack happened in a penal institution and that all inmates assigned to Willacy State Jail are Convicted felons, and the operation of such a jail is a dangerous task. And that prison officials can not be expected to prevent all (unanticipated) inmate-on-inmate violence.

This case will likely be appealed by Wackenhut (GEO) to the Texas Supreme Court in Austin.

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