Prison suicide lawsuit settled

JOHNSTOWN – A federal lawsuit filed nearly two years after the hanging death of a Clearfield County man in the Blair County Prison has been settled, according to an order this week from U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson.

Gibson marked the civil case closed, although details of how to structure the confidential settlement have yet to be worked out, the judge stated in an order after a telephone status conference with the attorneys representing the family of 27-year-old Nathan Aughenbaugh, who died in the prison on June 28, 2007; Blair County; Jennifer Feathers, a forensic specialist who worked at the prison; Dr. Jerome DeJulia, a Tyrone physician; and Tyrone Medical Associates, DeJulia’s employer.

Aughenbaugh was in the county prison on probation violation charges. His mother, Donna, and father, James, contended in a 2009 lawsuit filed in Johnstown that the doctor had over-medicated the 27-year-old.

The most recent civil complaint filed by the parents’ attorney, Devon Jacob of Camp Hill, stated that Aughenbaugh’s death could have been prevented “if the prison and its forensic specialist had properly watched him and prevented him from accessing his instrument of suicide [a bed sheet] since his suicidal tendencies were well known.”

The lawsuit also contended that death could have been prevented “if his primary care physicians [DeJulia] and Tyrone Medical Associates, had not been providing Nathan with narcotics that increased his suicidal tendencies.”

The lawsuit stated, “Due to narcotics that were provided, Nathan was often over-medicated if not hospitalized due to overdose.”

All of the defendants, including Blair County, denied that they were negligent or showed “deliberate indifference” to Aughenbaugh’s need for help.

The Blair County Prison Board members – the commissioners and several other elected officials – stated they were not aware of the Aughenbaugh settlement.

Commissioner Terry Tomassetti, who chairs the prison board, said he could not comment on the case late Thursday because he had not had the opportunity to review it.

None of the attorneys, involved with the case, nor DeJulia, were available for comment Friday.

The case was close to going to trial because attempts at mediation initially failed.

Gibson closed the case but said he would be available to help work out any problems that arose during attempts to prepare the final documents.

The judge during the lengthy pretrial period issued an opinion in the case in which he dismissed one count against the county but upheld other civil charges against it.

Court papers showed that Aughenbaugh’s problems began in 2002 with a severe leg injury that resulted in great pain. He was given pain medication by DeJulia, it was charged, and his continued use of medication became a subject of controversy over the years.

Eventually Aughenbaugh got into trouble with the law for driving under the influence of prescription drugs. On June 21, 2007, he was jailed on a probation detainer from Blair County.

A prison intake officer concluded that Aughenbaugh was a “substantial risk” to commit suicide, noting he had related to an officer he tried to commit suicide in the month before his arrest, that he was thinking about killing himself, that he was “overly anxious,” that he was possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs and that he was showing signs of withdrawal or mental illness.

Aughenbaugh was at first placed on Level I suicide watch, which meant he was housed in a cell with no bed sheets or anything else that would enable him to kill himself.

By June 22, he was placed on Level II suicide watch, and by June 26, at Feathers’ recommendation, he was placed on Level III watch in a cellblock, meaning he had access to bed sheets.

A trial in the case would have included a battle of experts, the Aughenbaughs having three physicians as experts who would have supported their charges of neglect.

Blair County had an expert, Lindsay Hayes, a suicide prevention consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice, who said there was no evidence prison authorities “displayed any apathy or unconcern for Nathan Aughenbaugh, ignored any risk of suicide or displayed behavior whatsoever associated with deliberate indifference to a known risk of suicide.”

He concluded that PrimeCare Medical of Harrisburg, the company which provides medical services to inmates, had a suicide prevention policy that was consistent with national standards, except that its Level III policy of visiting suicidal inmates every 30 minutes was outside the standard.

Hayes said there was no evidence county employees were aware their 30-minute interval was inconsistent with national policy.

Dr. Timothy Deer, professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine from Charleston, W.Va., stated Aughenbaugh’s death “was not related to or caused by the clinical management of Dr. DeJulia, nor any medications prescribed by Dr. DeJulia.”

An expert on behalf of Feathers, Dr. Ira K. Packer of the University Massachusetts Medical Center, submitted a report concluding that it was “reasonable and within the standard of care for her to conclude [Nathan Aughenbaugh] was not an acute risk of suicide.”

The Aughenbaugh case was the second Blair County Prison suicide incident to come before the federal court in Johnstown the past three years.

In July 2011, Gibson was presiding over the death of a Bellwood man, Jeremy Corbin, who committed suicide the year before Aughenbaugh. That lawsuit was settled after two days of testimony.

The most recent suicide occurred Dec. 7, when accused murderer Aaron Wilson Dishong of East Freedom hanged himself.