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Allegheny County Settles Three Lawsuits Over Medical Care at County Jail

by Dale Chappell

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania has settled a lawsuit over lack of adequate care by Corizon Health, the medical contractor at the county’s jail, for failing to feed a prisoner, which led him to go into cardiac arrest, according to court records.

The prisoner, Christopher Wallace, was arrested on February 25, 2015 and immediately taken to a hospital due to his poor health caused by his inability to obtain feeding tubes after his Medicaid benefits were suspended. Wallace had his esophagus severed in a prior shooting, and is unable to eat anything by mouth.

He was treated at the hospital and then sent to the jail with instructions to feed him through his feeding tube five times a day. On March 2, 2015, Wallace was rushed back to the hospital after losing consciousness. He was diagnosed with “starvation.” Once treated, he was returned to the jail a week later with the same instructions to feed him five times a day.

Wallace was again transported to the hospital less than two weeks later, this time after his heart stopped. Records indicated that he was fed even fewer times than when he was returned to the jail previously, sometimes without any feedings for an entire day. Hospital staff refused to let Wallace return until jail staff assured them they understood the seriousness of feeding him properly. He spent 19 days in the hospital before going back to the jail, then was released from custody on May 30, 2015.

Wallace filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2016, claiming damages from the lack of medical care by Corizon staff while at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ). His complaint alleged that he was 28 years old at the time of his arrest and stood 6 feet, 4 inches but weighed just 77 pounds. Yet staff refused to feed him despite his emaciated condition.

He alleged that Dr. Abimbola Talabi, a Corizon physician who was the interim medical director at the jail, and other Corizon employees, not only refused to feed him but also refused to authorize his transport to medical appointments to repair his esophagus.

Wallace claimed that Corizon and jail staff were “deliberately indifferent” to his serious medical needs, and that his starvation and heart attack were “directly related to the disorganized, dysfunctional, and deficient system of health care at ACJ.” [See: PLN, Dec. 2016, p.49].

On June 4, 2018, Allegheny County Manager William McKain approved a payment of $5,000 to settle Wallace’s lawsuit, which was dismissed by stipulation in January 2019. See: Wallace v. Fitzgerald, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:16-cv-01565-LPL.

Just before that settlement, the county agreed to pay $950,000 to the family of prisoner Frank Smith, 39, who was refused his seizure medication by Corizon staff, then was choked and suffocated by guards when he had a seizure in January 2015. The guards thought he was trying to fight them so they handcuffed him, placed him face down and then sat on him until he stopped breathing, according to court records. One report said that guards later joked about “how they killed that guy” while Smith pleaded, “I can’t breathe.”

In denying summary judgment to the defendants, the district court noted that the county admitted it knew that Corizon had “serious deficiencies with respect to dispensing medication on a timely basis to the inmates,” and that the case was “replete” with factual contradictions and discrepancies. County officials chose to settle rather than go to trial. See: Smart v. Allegheny County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Penn.), Case No. 2:15-cv-00953-DSC.

And just three weeks after Wallace’s settlement, the county paid $80,000 to the family of Jamie Gettings, who had committed suicide at ACJ. Jail staff found her hanging in her cell in April 2017. [See: PLN, May 2019, p.49].

That’s three settlements by Allegheny County within six months due to deficiencies at the county jail. In December 2014, an audit had revealed that Corizon had numerous contract violations due to its failure to provide adequate medical services. 

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Additional sources: triblive.com, post-gazette.com

Related legal case

Smart v. Allegheny County