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$500,000 Jury Award Cut to $250,000 for Pennsylvania Prisoner Brutally Beaten by Guards

Lack of expert testimony halved a $500,000 award made by a federal jury to Pennsylvania prisoner Michael Sherman Allen on November 1, 2023, for injuries sustained in a brutal 2019 beating at the hands of Robert Hollowood and fellow guards at State Correctional Institution (SCI) in Fayette.

Allen, who is an African-American, was previously held at SCI-Graterford when he filed an earlier complaint against several guards in July 2015. Before that case went to trial, one of the named defendants—guard Edward Settle—died. SCI-Fayette guards, apparently aware of the case and blaming Allen for Settle’s death, called the prisoner a “snitch” and a “scum bag.”

It was against this background that Allen observed Hollowood and two other guards—Juan Macias and Paul Gaffey—enter his cell at SCI-Fayette on February 25, 2019. Allen at the time was on the telephone, so he terminated his call and approached his cell to see why the guards were inside, finding that Hollowood was destroying his CPAP machine.

Gaffey prevented Allen from entering the cell to attempt to save the device and ordered him to strip naked in front of the other prisoners on the cell block. Allen complied. Surveillance video then captured Hollowood as he ran from the cell and attacked Allen, calling the prisoner “nigger” and falsely yelling that Allen had “punched a guard.” That drew other guards into the melee. Allen was pinned face down on the floor.

“Break the nigger’s fingers!” Hollowood yelled.

Guards could then be seen bending Allen’s fingers one by one, trying to break them. As they stomped at Allen’s face, head, and neck, he lost consciousness. But they weren’t done with Allen, dragging his limp body down a flight of metal stairs. Allen was subsequently housed in a medical observation cell for several days before he was given false disciplinary reports and placed in the restricted housing unit.

With the aid of Harrisburg attorney Leticia C. Chavez-Freed, Allen filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming Hollowood as Defendant along with several other employees of the state Department of Corrections (DOC), including Secretary John Wetzel. The federal court for the Western District of Pennsylvania only partially granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint on November 22, 2022, letting counts stand against Hollowood, Macias and Wetzel. See: Allen v. Sec’y John Wetzel, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 212223 (W.D. Pa.).

The case proceeded to a three-day trial beginning on October 30, 2023, after which the jury awarded Allen $250,000 on his battery claim and $250,000 on his claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED). At once, Hollowood moved for Judgment as a Matter of Law or a new trial, arguing that he was immune from liability for either tort because he was acting within the scope of his employment at the time. He also challenged the IIED award because Allen presented no expert medical testimony to support his claim that he suffered an actual emotional injury.

On January 3, 2024, the Court examined the first claim and determined that Hollowood “comes up well short of his burden” to prove that he was acting within the scope of his employment when he assaulted the prisoner. However, the Court agreed with the guard that Allen’s IIED claim suffered from a lack of expert medical testimony to support his claim of an actual injury. There, the Court substituted an amended judgment that omitted the IIED award but sustained the $250,000 award for battery. See: Allen v. Wetzel, No. 2:19-cv-01258 (W.D. Pa.).

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