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$129,000 Bench Verdict for BOP Prisoner in Failure to Warn of Valley Fever

A California federal district court awarded a federal prisoner $128,624.01 in damages in a lawsuit alleging officials at Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) Safford in Arizona failed to warn him about Valley Fever.

The Court’s July 23, 2021, order was issued following a two-day bench trial that occurred in January 2020. Prisoner Oscar Sandoval sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act. The United States moved to dismiss after the trial, asserting Sandoval was barred from recovery under the Inmate Accident Compensation Act, which is the exclusive remedy for work-related injuries. The Court granted the motion in part by prohibiting recovery for any injuries Sandoval as a result of not being provided a protective mask as an orderly at the prison. It denied the motion as to injuries he incurred as a result of Sandoval’s failure to warn claim.

The Court’s order detailed the facts presented at trial. It found that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had a duty to warn prisoners of hazards at their prison. It further found that officials at FCI Stafford breached that duty.

Valley Fever, or Coccidioides immitis and Coccidioides posadasii (Cocci), is in the area surrounding FCI Stafford. It is a naturally occurring soil fungus, which makes all dust suspect of carrying Cocci spores. An October 1, 2013, memo from Dr. Newton Kendig, then the BOPs Assistant Director of Health Services Division, listed FCI Stafford as a prison where all prisoners “must be made of, and periodically reminded of, the signs and symptoms of Valley Fever as well as accessing health serviced for evaluation and treatment.” The memo included a “Lesson Plan detailing the information he wanted all FCI Stafford prisoners to know.

Prior to his diagnosis with Valley Fever, Sandoval was never warned of the risk of contracting Cocci while at FCI Stafford. In November 2014, Sandoval presented himself to medical with symptoms of Valley Fever. His symptoms worsened and he was diagnosed with pneumonia in December 2014. It was not until March 2015 that he was diagnosed with Valley Fever. Over the next few months, his symptoms recurred. At times, the medication to treat Valley Fever, Fluconazole, was not available at FCI Stafford. He was transferred to another prison in Lompoc, California, in November 2015. Valley Fever has no known cure.

Sandoval’s Valley Fever disseminated, which can reduce his life expectancy and requires he take Fluconazole for the rest of his life. The Court found the failure of staff to warn Sandoval of Valley Fever was the causation of his contracting the disease, and but for their failure to warn, Sandoval would have taken preventative measures. Their failure to warn was “a substantial factor” in the dissemination of the disease.

Having found liability against the United States, the Court awarded Sandoval $78,624.01 in future medical expenses and $50,000 in noneconomic damages. On October 1, 2021, the court also taxed $10,070.57 against the United States in favor of Sandoval. No appeal has been filed as this issue of PLN goes to press. See: Sandoval v. United States, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 137856. 

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Related legal case

Sandoval v. United States