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Holding the state liable after prison bus accidents is tricky

Texas has a lot of prisons, and transfers between those prisons is usually accomplished by bus. When those buses get into an accident, the consequences for the prisoners can be horrific.

Usually chained to another prisoner to help prevent escapes, prisoners not only have to contend with the force of the crash itself, but they may have to contend with the force of other bodies being thrown against theirs. There are rarely any seat belts involved to protect anyone from being tossed about the bus.

While prisoners do have a right to bring civil actions for their injuries, they first have to overcome the significant limitations imposed on them by the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

The PLRA only allows inmates to file a civil lawsuit for damages after they've exhausted all internal prison grievance steps. Worse, a judge that deems the suit to be frivolous can toss the case out of court. If that happens three times, the state can force a prisoner to pay the filing fees for any subsequent civil case—something most prisoners are ill-equipped to do.

Overcoming the exhaustion clause of the PLRA is often the most significant barrier that prisoners face—and a prisoner who is acting pro se, without an attorney, can easily be tripped up on this requirement.

It's important to understand that any error, no matter how trivial it may seem, can result in a rejection of the claim. A civil claim can also only include allegations that were listed in the internal complaint—anything that didn't exhaust the internal complaint process won't be allowed to proceed to litigation in court.

For example, if a prisoner alleges several different physical injuries from the bus accident during the internal complaint process, all of those can eventually move forward in civil court if they aren't resolved. However, what if the prisoner also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety attacks every time he or she has to set foot on a bus due to the earlier trauma? If that wasn't listed as an original allegation during the internal process, it can't be raised as part of the civil claim either.

Prisoners still have rights and can still be successful in civil court. However, given the limitation and complexity of the PLRA, a prisoner who was injured in a bus crash may want to consider getting the help of an attorney as soon as possible.

Source: www.mysanantonio., "South Texas prison bus crash sends 16 to hospital," Kolten Parker, Dec. 16, 2016

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Brian Jensen

Representation in the Houston Area with 3 Convenient Locations:

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