By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
An inmate incarcerated at Halawa Correctional Facility on Oahu is suing the state Department of Public Safety, saying he was trampled and injured during a cellblock fire at Hawaii Community Correctional Center almost two years ago.
The civil lawsuit, filed Monday in Hilo Circuit Court by Kaneohe, Oahu-based attorney David K. Ahuna on behalf of Michael W. Ortiz, alleges negligence by the state and seeks unspecified damages. Ortiz alleges that on Nov. 18, 2011, an inmate at an overcrowded HCCC cellblock intentionally set a fire while guards were sleeping on the job. The filing states that a sprinkler system in the cellblock malfunctioned and “the fire spread and the smoke thickened” in the cellblock.
According to the suit, guards awakened “several minutes later” and tried, unsuccessfully, to put the fire out with extinguishers. The suit claims that the guards “eventually retreated,” leaving Ortiz and the other inmates “in the burning and smoke-filled cellblock.”
The document states that “several minutes later” guards “opened the cellblock and allowed the inmates to frantically flee out of the fire and smoke-filled room.”
“During the chaotic exit, (Ortiz) was trampled over by several inmates who were trying to get away from the fire,” the filing states.
Ortiz “suffered and continues to suffer severe and permanent injuries to his back, foot and other damages,” the lawsuit claims. It states that “as a direct and proximate result” of DPS’ “negligent acts and/or omissions,” Ortiz “sustained severe and permanent physical, mental and emotional injuries, bodily injuries, severe emotional and mental distress, permanent scarring and disfigurement, (and) psychological trauma and distress.”
The suit claims that DPS breached its duty to ensure the safety of inmates and failed to maintain the cellblock fire sprinkler system. It also alleges that DPS “knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care, should have known” that overcrowding of inmates in the cellblock “created a foreseeable risk of harm.”
The 45-year-old Ortiz, who is serving a 10-year sentence for burglary, gained notoriety in the late 1990s when he was mistakenly sent from Halawa to an Oklahoma prison instead of to Hilo for trial on felony theft charges. He also garnered attention as a prosecution witness in the Dana Ireland murder trial, telling authorities that Albert Ian Schweitzer admitted his involvement in the crime to Ortiz while both were incarcerated at HCCC. Schweitzer and Frank Pauline Jr. were sentenced to life imprisonment for their roles in the rape and murder of Ireland on Christmas Eve 1991.
Fire Battalion Chief Garrett Komatsu, the department’s records custodian, said in a voice-mail message that a “trash can fire” was reported by HCCC on Nov. 18, 2011 at 4:33 a.m. He said that fire personnel extinguished the fire quickly after their arrival on scene.
Ahuna declined on Thursday to comment on the lawsuit.
In an email, DPS spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said that the department has not been served with the suit and she couldn’t comment.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.