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Late inmate’s kin can sue Utah over van crash, top court rules

By Geoffrey Fattah
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Family members of a late Utah State Prison inmate who was paralyzed during a van rollover in 2000 may still have a chance to sue the state for personal injury.

On Friday, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that Kelvin Dexter’s heirs may still yet be able to bring a claim against the state for allegations that two corrections officers refused to seat belt nine inmates being transported in a van before the van was involved in a rollover accident.

Dexter and eight other inmates were loaded into a prison van to be transported to the Beaver County Jail in December 2000. The inmates, who were handcuffed and shackled, asked two corrections officers to have their seat belts fastened for them -- a request which was ignored.

During the trip, the corrections officer driving was momentarily distracted and the van drifted into a highway median, causing it to roll three times. Three inmates and an officer were critically injured. Dexter was thrown from the van and paralyzed. Dexter died five years later due to complications from his injuries.

In its unanimous ruling Friday, the court found that in order for Dexter to prove the prison violated the constitutional prohibition of “unnecessary rigor in confinement” he must show that not belting in the inmates presents “an obvious and known serious risk of harm” and that “knowing of that risk, the official acts without other reasonable justification.”

The high court has remanded the case back to the trial court for further hearings to determine if the facts fall under this legal analysis.

Copyright 2008 Deseret Morning News