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Prisoner Enters Federal System Able to See, Leaves Nearly Blind; $2.6 Million Settlement

by Ed Lyon 

Vannara Nhar, 22, was sentenced to a term in federal prison for selling firearms to an undercover cop. He entered the Bureau of Prisons in October 2011 with near-perfect vision and was assigned to FCC Butner in North Carolina. When he left in 2013, his eyesight was irreversibly damaged.

Nhar had glaucoma to begin with. Glaucoma is a group of diseases where high intraocular pressures within the affected person’s eyes damage the optic nerves, eventually resulting in blindness if not treated.

Nhar, of Asian descent, also suffered from what a federal mediator called a “secondary glaucoma” caused by Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome (VKHS), which is more likely to affect Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics. VKHS, an autoimmune disease, appears in melanin tissue encompassing brain and spinal cord membranes, the inner ears, eyes and skin. 

At his initial medical screening, Nhar was found to have bilateral 20/30 vision; he was referred to see an ophthalmologist within 30 days due to the severity of his VKHS-accelerated glaucoma. In a harbinger of things to come, that appointment occurred 19 days late. Nhar was referred to the retina clinic, which took 54 days – 24 days longer than it should have. Also, the prescribed monthly bilateral intraocular pressure checks Nhar was supposed to receive did not occur for six months. The mediator described this as a violation of the standard of care set by the prescribing specialist – much more severe than a deviation from the usual standard of care. 

During this time, Nhar submitted 11 polite requests for medical attention. He complained of “night blindness, seeing spots, decreased vision lateral peripheral fields,” as well as eye pain, filming of the eyes, total peripheral vision loss and clouded visual fields with blackout areas. Those complaints fell under “Medically Necessary – Acute or Emergent” events requiring immediate attention, which he did not receive. 

“I think that he was so nice that they just blew him off,” said one of Nhar’s attorneys, Gregory M. Kash.

The mediator found this to be gross negligence and medical malpractice on the part of prison medical staff, and held the United States to be vicariously liable under the respondent superior doctrine in Nhar’s claim filed pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act.

After another delay Nhar eventually received surgery, which included placing tubes in his eyes to drain fluid and reduce the pressure, but his vision loss progressed. Prison officials did not take him for recommended follow-up surgery, and upon his release he was legally blind.

The mediator awarded Nhar $2,600,000 in damages. Nhar and his attorney received a $1,092,000 check as an initial payment. Another check for $1,368,000 was made to an annuity funding company to provide Nhar with guaranteed monthly payments for at least the next 35 years, and a fee check for $140,000 went to the annuity funding company. Naht was represented by Kash and attorney Annemarie H. McAnally. See: Nhar v. United States, U.S.D.C. (E.D. NC), Case No. 5:16-cv-03019-D. 


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Related legal case

Nhar v. United States