An Albemarle County man has sued a former prisoner, the jail superintendent and a county staff member for $10 million claiming he was seriously injured when inmates in a jail work program crashed a utility vehicle into him last fall on a county-owned trail.
Daniel Roe, 59, charges in the suit that an inmate driving a John Deere Gator was traveling too fast on the Old Mills Trail, on the east side of the Rivanna River in the Pantops area of Albemarle.
The prisoner, identified as Sean Wesley Sapin in court documents, was roughly one mile from the work site and far from the county parks and recreation employee tasked with supervising jail workers when the crash occurred on Oct. 10, according to the seven-page complaint filed last month.
"It was an unfortunate accident," said Martin Kumer, deputy superintendent of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. Citing pending litigation, Kumer would neither detail how civilian work program supervisors are trained nor provide written policies governing the practice.
Roe said that although he hopes to recoup his medical expenses, his motivation is to increase safety for trail-goers. His Richmond-based attorney, Seth Carroll of Geoff McDonald & Associates, advised the $10-million request, he said.
The suit names Sapin, jail superintendent Col. Ronald Matthews and county worker Terry Hughes as defendants and charges all three with negligence. The suit also charges Hughes and Sapin with gross negligence.
"I've never sued anybody in my my life. I really never thought I ever would sue somebody," said Roe, an auto-body technician who lives in southern Albemarle. "This isn't a child-safe world, but you shouldn't have to worry about being run over by prisoners."
Roe said he saw it coming: He remembers swerving his bicycle into the wood line to avoid the Gator loaded down with men in orange jumpsuits. Then he remembers waking up to find his leg bones breaking through his skin.
"One second I was OK and the next second I was all messed up," he recalled. "And [the prisoners] didn't stay to help."
Roe said he remembered seeing at least three men riding on the two-seat machine. It wasn't immediately clear how many other inmates were working the detail at the time or whether any other supervisors were present that day.
Sapin was expelled from the work program after the incident and transferred to the Virginia Department of Corrections the following month, Kumer said. Efforts to reach Sapin were unsuccessful.
The work program Sapin was participating in began in mid-September and does not accept prisoners with a history of violence or multiple disciplinary infractions, Kumer said.
The jail has used inmate labor for more than a decade. The new program allows prisoners to apply work credits toward paying down court costs and fines. Unlike a traditional inmate work force, which is supervised by an armed guard, the program started in September allows civilian workers to request and supervise groups of inmates to complete projects such as graffiti removal, litter pickup and trail maintenance.
No money changes hands, but inmates earn minimum wage credits for each verified hour they work, according to Charlottesville Circuit Court Clerk Llezelle Dugger, whose office manages credits and debts on city charges.
"It's good for the folks. They're more likely to succeed when they get out [of jail] if they aren't bogged down with fees and fines," she said.
Albemarle County Sheriff J.E. "Chip" Harding spearheaded implementation of the program, which is based on a model used in Norfolk.
Hughes had been supervising inmate workers for at least two-and-a-half years before the incident, according to a May 2010 presentation from Harding's office on the merits of working for credit.
"Hughes reported having mostly good experiences," with the one or two inmates he oversaw at that point, and said he would like to be able to use up to 20 at a time, the report states.
Hughes did not respond to a request for comment for this story and his department supervisor referred all questions to Albemarle's county attorney, Larry Davis. Davis said the county maintains insurance through the Virginia Association of Counties' Risk Management Program for workers sued in their role as county employees. An attorney with the program will represent Hughes, he said.
Davis said it's a service the county rarely needs to use. He couldn't recall how many times county employees have been sued in their official capacity, but "it's a very limited number," he said.
A hearing date has not yet been set. Defendants were served notice of the suit on April 18, and had not filed a response by Friday afternoon.