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Blair prison, PrimeCare seek to dismiss lawsuit over suicide

Grandmother filed civil lawsuit after granddaughter’s death in prison

Attorneys for the Blair County Prison and the company that provides medical care to its inmates have asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the family of a 23-year-old Altoona woman, who died from suicide while imprisoned.

Deborah A. Beckwith, the grandmother of Samantha Rae Beckwith, has brought civil charges against the prison and PrimeCare Medical Inc. of Harrisburg because of the alleged poor mental health care that Samantha received after being jailed in late September 2016. The lawsuit asks for compensation for Samantha Beckwith’s two young children.

The young mother, the lawsuit stated, suffered from bipolar disorder and daily took medication to control the condition.

The lawsuit, filed by Pittsburgh attorney George M. Kontos, contends Beckwith within the last couple of years had been in the prison on 10 occasions and that the prison staff should have known she suffered from mental health issues.

It is charged that Beckwith informed the prison that she intended to take her own life, yet prison officials eventually removed her from suicide watch and failed to provide her with proper medication.

On Oct. 24, 2016, she was found dead in her cell, according to the legal papers filed in U.S. District Court in Johnstown.

Now the county and PrimeCare have asked U.S. District Judge Kim R. Gibson to dismiss the lawsuit, denying many of the relevant facts stated by the family’s attorney and contending the lawsuit is too vague.

PrimeCare attorney John R. Ninosky of Camp Hill denied Beckwith informed the prison staff that she intended to commit suicide, and he contends that Beckwith was never placed on “suicide watch.”

“Ms. Beckwith was placed upon a mental health observation status,” the PrimeCare answer stated.

PrimeCare goes on to state that Beckwith was assessed at least eight times during her short stay in prison and that those assessments were performed “by a qualified mental health professional.”

Confronting the allegations that PrimeCare’s mental health policies and procedures are lax, it replied that Beckwith’s medical and mental health care “conformed to the applicable standard of care.

“Further,” it stated, “all PrimeCare policies and procedures meet or exceed national accreditation standards.”

PrimeCare, in addressing the civil charge of professional negligence, contended that Deborah Beckwith’s attorney has not presented a “certificate of merit,” which is the opinion of an expert, to support the charges.

If a certificate of merit is not filed by April 10, PrimeCare, it was stated, will ask the judge to dismiss all negligence charges.

As to that point, Kontos on March 8 filed a notice that a certificate of merit would be filed, noting that “an appropriate licensed professional” has supplied a statement indicating Samantha Beckwith’s mental health treatment in prison “fell outside acceptable professional standards and that such conduct was a cause in bringing about the harm.”

The expert was not identified in the papers filed last week.

The lawsuit, according to PrimeCare, may also be barred by the Federal Litigation Reform Act, which prescribes standards inmates must meet to file lawsuits, the Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act and the statute of limitations.

“At no time were Samantha R. Beckwith’s constitutional rights violated,” it concluded.

Attorney Suzzane B. Merrick, representing the county, asked dismissal of the lawsuit because the charges did not specify who Beckwith confided in when she allegedly related her intent to commit suicide.

She said the plaintiff must show Beckwith had a “particular vulnerability to suicide” and that an employee at the prison acted in a reckless or deliberately indifferent manner in not addressing her condition.

The prison’s attorney also asked for dismissal because the lawsuit did not show a custom or policy employed by the county that led to Beckwith’s suicide and also did not outline additional training the employees could have received that would have possibly prevented the suicide.

The Beckwith lawsuit was initially filed in the Blair County Court but at the request of the defendants’ attorneys, was moved to the federal court.

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