Judge: Bedford County inmate’s lawsuit may move forward

A federal magistrate in Johnstown has recommended that a lawsuit filed by a former Bedford County Prison inmate move forward.

Magistrate Keith Pesto in his initial review of the lawsuit brought in January on behalf of Jeffrey Scott Miller, 54, stated that at this stage of the case, the defense claim by Bedford County that its prison employees are protected by qualified immunity from civil action “must be rejected.”

Miller, who is an inmate in the State Correctional Institution at Benner Township, Centre County, has charged Bedford County and its prison employees with failure to protect him from a brutal assault by another inmate on Jan. 15, 2016.

His then-cellmate, James Howard Dively, 34, has been charged with aggravated assault, simple assault and attempted criminal homicide as a result of the beating.

In his lawsuit brought by Altoona attorney Christopher R. Jancula, Miller claims he was stabbed in the eye and that he suffered severe head trauma, broken ribs and facial fractures, as well as psychological and emotional damage, all as a result of the assault by Dively.

Despite other inmates shouting for help during the beating, it took 35 minutes for officers to respond, according to the lawsuit.

Dively has yet to be tried for the incident, although a status conference on his case is scheduled for Sept. 9, according to court records.

The county, through its attorney, Mary Lou Maierhofer of Altoona, filed a petition in May asking U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson to dismiss the lawsuit.

The case was referred to Pesto for a recommendation.

If Jancula or Maierhofer have objections to Pesto’s report, they must be filed by the end of this week. If no objections are filed, the county has 20 days to answer Miller’s lawsuit, according to Pesto.

Pesto also has set up a schedule for the case that will bring it trial in late 2019.

The primary issue is whether prison officials, including the warden and a named corrections officer, were “deliberately indifferent” toward Miller’s safety.

Pesto cited a 1994 federal case that concluded corrections personnel “cannot be deliberately indifferent to an inmate’s need to be protected from other inmates.”

The defense, however, won several points.

Pesto rejected Miller’s claim of negligence against the county, pointing out that there is no claim by Miller that prison officials “intended” that the assault occur.

The magistrate has concluded that Miller is not entitled to punitive damages, which are granted in an effort to prevent further violations of an inmates’ rights and can often result is substantial financial awards.

Maierhofer has claimed that the lawsuit should be dismissed because Miller failed to first go through the prison’s grievance system before taking his case to the federal court.

Pesto stated that at this point it is not clear whether Miller even had access to the grievance system because he filed the lawsuit while a state prisoner.

That is an issue that will be resolved at a later date, Pesto stated.

The lawsuit states Miller, who was in prison awaiting trial on a charge of failure to provide accurate registration information, was suffering from depression.

He was placed in a cell with Dively, who allegedly had a history of mental health problems to the point that Bedford Judge Travis Livengood had ordered his transfer to the Torrance State Hospital for treatment.

Yet Dively, more than four months after the order, remained in the county prison.

In letters to his family, Miller complained that Dively “keeps telling me to kill myself,” the lawsuit stated.

Miller on Dec. 2, 2016, was sent to the state correctional system for three to

10 years on the failure-to-register charge.