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Allegheny County Reaches $2.09 Million Settlement for Prisoner’s Death

A $2.09 million settlement was reached in a lawsuit stemming from the death of a prisoner who was denied medical care at Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County Jail.

Derek E. Black, 28, was involved in an April 16, 2012 altercation with another prisoner and placed in solitary confinement. Several days later he began spitting up blood; a nurse gave him cough medicine, but he was not seen by a doctor. Later, Black spoke to a nurse about his ongoing condition, and guards repeatedly requested that he receive medical care. The nurse put him on a priority health services list but he still was not seen.

Guards continued to request care for Black, and a nurse from Allegheny County Health Services (ACHS), the jail’s medical provider at the time, sent a medical assistant to see him. The assistant declared Black was “faking.”

An April 28, 2012 medical request from Black said he experienced sharp pain every time he took a breath, sometimes to the point he would see “white.” The next day he filled out another medical request, but was not seen until the day after, on April 30.

Once taken to a hospital, Black went into respiratory arrest and was intubated. His condition continued to deteriorate and he went into respiratory arrest again on May 5, which caused an anoxic brain injury that resulted in his death the following day.

The attorney representing Black’s estate, Wayne E. Ely, said he had an expert witness who would testify that Black suffered from untreated pneumonia. Just weeks before trial, an agreement to settle the case was reached on June 15, 2015.

The settlement included a $90,000 payment from Allegheny County plus $2 million from ACHS’ insurer; a final order of dismissal was entered in the case on September 28, 2015. See: Black v. Allegheny County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:13-cv-00179-CRE.

The proceedings prior to the settlement agreement were contentious.

In February 2014, the federal judge overseeing the litigation issued a third sanctions order against Allegheny County attorneys for failing to follow court-ordered discovery rules. U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Reed Eddy ordered the county’s lawyers to personally pay for the 2½ hours Ely spent preparing a motion in a dispute over records that included the full names of guards at the jail.

The county abruptly canceled the depositions of 21 guards between March 11 and 21, 2014, which prompted the court to order county officials to pay for Ely’s airfare and hotel stay. Such “neglect or intentional delay tactics,” as Magistrate Judge Eddy termed the county’s actions, were apparently part of a pattern.

In unrelated incidents, the county faces lawsuits for an attempted suicide at the jail and the alleged sexual assault of a female prisoner by guard Charles L. Walker. In both of those cases, the county provided “insufficient and incomplete” or “woefully inadequate” responses to discovery requests, according to attorneys involved in the lawsuits. 

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Related legal case

Black v. Allegheny County