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Bureau of Prisons Settles Prisoner's "Valley Fever" Suit for $425,000

Bureau of Prisons Settles Prisoner's "Valley Fever" Suit for $425,000

by Matt Clarke

In August 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) settled for $425,000 a lawsuit brought by a federal prisoner who claimed that the BOP had knowingly exposed him to a fungus in the soil surrounding a California federal prison causing him to contract a serious and potentially deadly infection.

In 2005, Arjang Panah was a federal prisoner incarcerated at the Taft Correctional Institution in Kern County – which is located in California's San Joaquin Valley – when he contracted an infection of the airborne fungus Coccidioides immitis known as Coccidioidomycosis, and commonly called "Valley Fever," "San Joaquin Valley Fever" or "cocci." According to court documents, the name comes from the disease's high prevalence in the San Joaquin Valley and especially in Kern County, which accounts for 70 of the cases of Valley Fever reported in California. The disease is contracted by inhaling fungal spores located in the dry soil of the region.

Most people who contract Valley fever have no overt symptoms. About 40% have symptoms and over half of them are severe enough to require a substantial amount of time off work. In less than 5% of the cases, the infections disseminate throughout the body, causing bone and joint infections, skin disease, soft tissue abscesses and/or meningitis. If the disease progresses to meningitis and is untreated, it is always fatal. There is no cure for an infection. Therefore, anyone with symptoms of a disseminated infection must take a lifelong daily regime of Fluconazole, an antifungal medication, in an attempt to keep the infection from progressing. The medication and physicians visits necessary for an infected person result in medical costs averaging about $450 per day.

Panah developed symptoms of a disseminated infection, including a swollen scrotum, pneumonia-like symptoms and a high Complement Fixation score indicating a high level of antibodies to the disease in his blood. While incarcerated, he was treated with Fluconazole which reduced his titer score and other symptoms. Despite continuing treatment after his release, the symptoms recurred. The ongoing infection also compromises his immune system so that he is highly susceptible to common infections, such as colds and the flu, and they cause severe, life-threatening symptoms.

Represented by San Diego attorneys Stephen V. Petix, Jason Feldman and Ian M. Wallach, Panah filed a lawsuit against the U.S. under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. §1 1346(b)(1) and 201, et seq., alleging that BOP officials knew about the fungus and its potential for serious infection, yet took no measures, such as planting grass around the prison buildings, paving roads near the prison or issuing filter masks to prisoners, to prevent infection.

"The discovery was pretty crazy," said Wallach. "A series of emails showed that [Valley Fever] exploded in the facility" with 4% of the prisoners contracting the disease and between 1% and 5% suffering serious infections.

Given that and the prison's location, it is no surprise the government settled.

"If you look at Taft, it is five or six buildings on dirt," said Wallach. "Just on a pile of dirt."

Although he said he was "on top of the world" because of the settlement, Wallach also said he hopes "that preventative measures will start to be implemented" noting that the prison's builder wanted to plant grass, but was overruled. See: Panah v. United States, U.S.D.C. (C.D.Cal.), Case No. 2:09-cv-06535-GAF-PLA.


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Related legal case

Panah v. United States