Jury awards inmate injured in South Bay prison $1.2 million
Sept. 13, 2012
By Jane Musgrave
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WEST PALM BEACH —
When Roy Hyatt gets out of prison in two years, he is likely to be a wealthy man.
Hyatt, serving a 17-year sentence for a 1997 aggravated assault in Duval County, was awarded $1.2 million by a Palm Beach County jury this week to compensate him for losing the sight in one eye when another inmate at South Bay Correctional Facility threw boiling water in his face.
Had GEO Group, a Boca Raton-based prison management company, not given inmates unfettered access to microwaves in their open cell blocks, Hyatt today wouldn’t be dealing with medical problems that will haunt him for the rest of his life, the jury found.
“I was appalled when I first heard it,” jury forewoman Sara Bierschenk said of the policy. A nurse at Jupiter Medical Center, she said: “We don’t allow patients in the hospital to use microwaves. Why would you let criminals?”
GEO’s attorneys declined comment. But during the six-day trial, they argued that such events are rare at the two prisons it operates in Florida or the 50 others it runs in North America — only four in 10 years, attorney Robert Moses said.
Further, he said, if it wasn’t microwaved water, it would have been something else. “Inmates are a crafty bunch,” he said. “They can make a weapon out of nothing.”
Attorney Philip Thompson, who represents Hyatt, said there was another incident at South Bay a year earlier. GEO knew the microwaves posed a risk. The Florida Department of Corrections doesn’t give inmates unrestricted access to microwaves at the 55 prisons it runs with state workers. And, he said, other states have figured out ways to keep microwaves from being used as weapons.
In South Bay, inmates can heat anything to extreme temperatures and carry it around the cell block. That’s what happened to Hyatt in 2007. He was watching football on TV, when Rodney Smith, who is serving three life sentences, doused him with boiling water.
Hyatt speculates that Smith, who owed inmates money, planned the attack so he would be moved out of the cell block. Instead of asking to be placed in protective custody, which other inmates view as a sign of weakness, prisoners misbehave so they will be relocated.
Regardless of the motive, Hyatt’s life was unalterably changed, Thompson said. When released in August 2014, he won’t be able to return to his former job as a roofer. He can’t do manual labor because sweat irritates the eye, which oozes constantly. Even though he wears an eye patch, more than 30 minutes in the sun gives him blinding headaches, Thompson said.
The $1.2 million jury award was nearly $400,000 more than Thompson sought. The lion’s share, $1 million, was for pain and suffering. The rest was for future medical expenses and lost wages.
While it is likely GEO will appeal, Thompson doubts it will prevail. Because it rejected a $125,000 settlement offer, he can ask a judge to force it to pay his attorney fees, he said. That means more money would go to Hyatt.
When the verdict was announced Wednesday, Hyatt burst into tears.
“I started crying, too,” Thompson said. “We fought so hard for this case for so long. Now this guy has a chance