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Court revives inmate lawsuit

Commonwealth judge: Complaint about care during COVID ‘paints concerning picture’

The Commonwealth Court has ordered the reinstatement of a civil rights lawsuit filed by an inmate in the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon complaining about the medical care he received during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Huntingdon County Judge George N. Zanic dismissed the lawsuit in February as being “frivolous.”

The word “frivolous” when referring to a lawsuit means the complaints by a plaintiff have no basis in the law.

On Feb, 9, Judge George N. Zanic ruled that the lawsuit filed by Bennie Anderson, a 66-year-old inmate, was frivolous, even though the county judge — as reported in the Commonwealth Court opinion issued Tuesday — concluded Anderson “paints a picture that is concerning.”

In an opinion written by Commonwealth Court Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, the appeals court concluded that although Anderson’s lawsuit complaining about the medical care he received is “not a model of clarity. The complaint is not frivolous.”

Leadbetter and Judges Patricia A. McCullough and Ellen Ceisler ordered that Anderson’s lawsuit be reinstated.

Anderson filed his lawsuit against several nurses, a corrections officer and the supervising doctor at SCI Huntingdon.

According to the opinion, Anderson describes himself as an elderly inmate who has been in the institution “for decades without incident.”

He contends the Department of Corrections mishandled his medical aftercare and housing, which occurred as the state prison system was attempting to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anderson alleges he is suffering from heart failure that causes swelling in both legs, chest pains, shortness of breath, dizziness and faintness.

In May 2020, he reported that he was transferred to J. C. Blair Hospital, Huntingdon, for a medical appointment that was ultimately canceled.

When he was returned to the correctional institution, he was not placed in his normal cell, but was quarantined in another cell for 14 days.

Anderson maintains he was placed in a cell without soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, eyeglasses, or clean clothes. He also claimed he was without access to his medications.

The cell where he was quarantined was close to another cell containing at least nine inmates who had tested positive for COVID-19, Anderson charges.

In June 2020, he was returned to J.C. Blair for heart surgery. Anderson states in his complaint the standard procedure after surgery is to hold inmates in an infirmary in nearby SCI Smithfield.

Instead of going to Smithfield, he was placed in a cell for inmates on suicide watch.

In that cell, he had no washcloth, soap or hot water to clean his surgical wound site, he claims.

“In the present case, we conclude that (Anderson’s) complaint arguably sets forth valid causes of action upon which relief can be granted for violations of prison regulations and policies, as well as the United States Constitution,” the Commonwealth Court panel stated.

Anderson is serving a life sentence for murder stemming from a 1979 shooting and robbery in Philadelphia.

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