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$60,000 Paid by Pennsylvania County to Jail Detainee Savagely Beaten by Cellmate While Guards Allegedly Ignored Cries for Help

by Benjamin Tschirhart

On July 15, 2022, Pennsylvania’s Bedford County agreed to pay $60,000 to a former detainee in the county jail, settling claims that guards purposefully failed to protect him from a vicious assault by a mentally ill detainee incarcerated there with him.

The suit was filed by Jeffrey Scott Miller, who was 52 when he was held to await trial at Bedford County Correctional Facility (BCCF) in January 2016. It was not his first stay in the lockup, having spent time there in 2001 and 2004. In the cell with him was James Howard Dively, then 34, another returning detainee who should have been in psychiatric treatment, Miller later alleged in his suit.

Miller said that guards had taken a dislike to him during his earlier stay at the jail. He also claimed that Dively was well known to both guards and other BCCF staff, with numerous stays at mental health treatment facilities to testify to his mental instability. In fact, on January 10, 2016, Dively was supposed to be in treatment; a court had ordered him transported from BCCF to a psychiatric hospital over four months earlier. Instead, he remained in the cell shared with Miller. There guards turned the other way while Dively “brutally and relentlessly” attacked his cellmate that day, the complaint continued.

Miller’s shouts for help, as well as a general outcry from detainees in neighboring cells allegedly went unheeded by guards – in retaliation, he said, for whatever he had done during his earlier stints at the jail to earn their dislike. Surveillance video then captured what happened next: For 35 minutes, Dively subject Miller to a violent beat-down, punching and kicking him before stabbing him in his left eye, skull, and brain – with either a pen or a sharpened toothbrush, Miller surmised. He was left with wounds that included an orbital fracture and fractured ribs, as well as traumatic brain injury and subdural hemorrhaging.

Finally, when guard Gary Habinyak at last passed by on his scheduled every-30-minute round, he encountered Miller lying in a “large pool of blood with his head on the toilet,” the complaint continued. At that point Miller was taken out of the cell and airlifted to a Philadelphia hospital to undergo emergency treatment for his injuries.

With the aid of Altoona attorney Christopher R. Jancula of Gieg Law Offices, LLC, Miller filed his complaint at the Court in 2018. It laid out in detail the allegedly negligent behavior of BCCF staff, first by ignoring the court order to deliver Dively to the psychiatric hospital for mental health treatment; then by placing him instead in a cell with Miller; and also by allowing Dively to possess potentially dangerous items that a detainee with his history should never have been allowed to possess.

As the complaint alleged, staffers were also aware that Dively made threats against Miller, and that he even encouraged Miller to kill himself. The reckless disregard shown by Habinyak and BCCF Warden Troy Nelson for Miller’s safety and well-being culminated in the gruesome assault which they did nothing to prevent or to stop, the complaint concluded.

On August 20, 2018, Magistrate Judge Keith A. Pesto noted that Miller was barred from seeking punitive damages against municipal defendants by City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247 (1981). However, there may be an award for compensatory damages, the magistrate said. He recommended dismissal of Miller’s negligence claims against the county and BCCF, but he said both negligence and civil rights claims should proceed against Habinyak and Warden Nelson. Judge Kim R. Gibson Gibson then largely adopted that recommendation on October 30, 2018. See: Miller v. Bedford Cty., 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 137234 (W.D. Pa.); and 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 185391 (W.D. Pa.).

On February 16, 2022, after Defendants moved for summary judgment on the civil rights claims against them, Magistrate Judge Pesto made recommendations along the same lines: He said summary judgment should be granted to the county and BCCF, but it should be denied to the guard and the warden. See: Miller v. Bedford Cty., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27946 (W.D. Pa.).

After that, the parties proceeded to reach their settlement agreement. Funded by the county’s insurer, the Pennsylvania Counties Risk Pool, the $60,000 payment included costs and fees for Jancula, Miller’s attorney. See: Miller v. Bedford Cty., USDC (W.D. Pa.), Case No. 3:18-cv-00010.

Meanwhile Dively was convicted of assault charges in the incident and sentenced to 15 months in prison. He is reportedly now free on parole.

Additional source: Altoona Mirror

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