PLN quoted re CCA CEO's testimony in pending Idaho lawsuit
FEBRUARY 8, 2017 7:09 PM
Trial starts Monday in 'ghost worker' private prison lawsuit
A private prison company accused by inmates of dangerously understaffing an Idaho prison as part of a scheme to boost profits will have a chance to present its defense to jurors Monday when a civil trial begins in Boise's U.S. District Court.
Eight inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center sued the Nashville, Tennessee-based Correction Corporation of America in 2012, contending that poor management and chronic understaffing led to an attack in which they were jumped, stabbed and beaten by a prison gang. The inmates contend the company, which has since changed its name to CoreCivic, purposely understaffed the prison in a so-called "ghost worker scheme."
CoreCivic's understaffing and management of the Idaho Correctional Center has been the subject of several scandals and lawsuits in recent years, culminating in Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's decision in 2013 to order the state to take over the prison and sever its $29 million annual contract with the company. CoreCivic later agreed to pay the state $1 million to settle the understaffing issue.
CoreCivic has vigorously denied the inmates' claims.
"The safety and security of our facilities is a top priority," CoreCivic's public affairs director Jonathan Burns wrote in an email Wednesday. "The Idaho Correctional Center was in compliance with the staffing pattern contractually approved by the Idaho Department of Correction during the period of time in question."
The federal trial beginning on Monday will mark the first time CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger has been asked to testify on the matter.
In the lawsuit, the inmates contend that the former warden of the prison was instructed to decrease spending on staff before the attack happened, and they also contend that those directions came from the top of the company. They want Hininger to testify about what he said during quarterly conference calls with investors that were held in the months and days before the attack.
CoreCivic's attorneys fought to keep Hininger from having to testify, but so far haven't prevailed.
"We respect the judge's decision and Mr. Hininger looks forward to presenting his testimony," Burns wrote in the email to The Associated Press.
However, the company noted in earlier court filings that the inmates' attorney, Thomas J. Angstman, continues "to be coy about the source and substance of Mr. Hininger's alleged statements." CoreCivic's attorneys also say Angstman has refused to provide that evidence to CoreCivic.
Angstman has declined to comment on the lawsuit.
It's "somewhat unusual" to force a CEO of a big company to testify in a lawsuit, but certainly not impossible, said Rick Boardman, a commercial litigation expert and attorney with the law firm Perkins Coie in Boise.
"For a judge, I think it really comes down to how connected or how far removed the CEO is from the conduct in the allegation," said Boardman. "I think Judge Benson must have been convinced that this CEO has some particularlized knowledge about the conduct that is at the crux of this case, so in the interest of full and fair litigation in disputes, he was going to let this CEO testify."
Top executive testimony is pretty rare in private prison litigation, said Alex Friedmann, the managing editor of prisoner rights publication Prison Legal News.
"Typically, since CEOs or other high-level corporate officials aren't directly involved or responsible for, say, the violation of someone's rights in the prison context, they can't be held liable," said Friedmann, who has been involved in other lawsuits against CoreCivic in the past. "However, if it can be shown that a CEO was responsible for enacting a policy that resulted in the violation of someone's rights, or was directly involved or had knowledge but failed to act, etc., then they can potentially be held liable."
The trial is expected to last about a week.