Blair OKs $400,000 to settle suit
Insurance company will issue payment to inmate who reported being raped in prison
(This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.)
HOLLIDAYSBURG — An insurance company will pay $400,000 on behalf of Blair County to settle a federal lawsuit filed by a former inmate who reported being raped 25 months ago in the county prison.
Commissioners Bruce Erb, Terry Tomassetti and Ted Beam Jr. voted Tuesday to authorize the payment as part of an out-of-court settlement reached last week.
County Administrator Helen Schmitt said Tuesday that Nova Casualty Insurance Co. will make the payment as agreed to during mediation. Terms of the out-of-court agreement, Schmitt added, are to be kept confidential.
Attorney Kenneth J. Benson of Pittsburgh, a mediator in the case, filed notice Monday with the U.S. District Court, Johnstown, about the settlement.
Philadelphia-area attorney Joseph Guzzardo confirmed Tuesday that the settlement was reached and declined further comment.
Guzzardo’s client, referred to in court documents by his initials, sued the county prison, its prison board, managers and corrections officers, based on the sexual assaults he endured in December 2016 after being placed in a cell with Ralph Leroy Emery.
Emery, in February 2018, rendered guilty pleas to criminal charges of rape and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse in exchange for a eight- to 16-year state prison sentence. Hollidaysburg police charged Emery, now 57, after investigating the 19-year-old inmate’s allegations that police found were supported by DNA evidence.
The lawsuit contended that prison staff violated the inmate’s civil rights to be protected from sexual assault. It claimed that the prison’s top officials, as well as many of its corrections officers, were ill-trained to recognize inmates vulnerable to sexual assault.
Guzzardo also accused the county prison board and its officials of demonstrating “deliberate indifference” to the frail mental health condition of the young inmate by putting him in a cell with two much older sexual offenders. According to the lawsuit, the victim inmate was in prison for the first time, and initial testing showed he suffered from bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, autism and post-traumatic stress.
The victim also revealed, in a prison admission interview, that he suffered rape on prior occasions from his mother and a sister and that he had spent most of his life as a ward of the state because of parental abuse. The initial review of his case indicated that he was a higher risk of suicide because it was his first time in prison.
In responding to the lawsuit allegations in late August, attorney Suzanne B. Merrick of Pittsburgh acknowledged that the victim inmate had offered “sufficient facts to support a ‘failure to protect’ claim under the 14th Amendment against the four (corrections officers) in as much as the (officers) are alleged to have had sufficient fore-knowledge of Emery’s sexual aggression to be liable for failing to protect (the inmate) from the alleged rapes.”
Records indicate that the inmate’s problems occurred almost immediately after being admitted to prison on Dec. 18, 2016. He asked for protection after being threatened by another inmate. That’s when he was moved to a cell in the prison’s J-Block, where he was housed with Emery and another inmate.
In criminal charges filed by Hollidaysburg police, the victim inmate reported sexual assaults on Dec. 21, 22 and 24. The Dec. 24 assault, police said, was broken up by another inmate which led to a fight, drawing attention from the prison staff. After the victim inmate asked for a medical examination, he was transported to UPMC Altoona for further examination.
While commissioners voted to approve the insurance company’s payment, they offered no statements to acknowledge the county’s responsibility or lack of responsibility that factored into the $400,000 settlement. When Guzzardo initially filed the lawsuit, he requested in excess of $150,000 on behalf of his client.
Blair County solicitor Nathan Karn said he wasn’t involved in reaching the settlement.
“Sometimes cases like this settle for reasons other than somebody saying it’s their fault,” Karn said. “Sometimes the parties involved will look at what’s ahead and conclude it’s in their best interest to resolve this without trial.”
The lawsuit Guzzardo prepared on the victim’s behalf was characterized as a Monell Claim because it accused the county and its prison board with showing deliberate indifference to a pattern of sexual assaults inside the prison. By placing the inmate in a cell with two sex offenders, Guzzardo said the prison staff ignored “a state-created danger” to a vulnerable inmate.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.