ROCHESTER — A motion to dismiss was filed last month by a Pennsylvania company named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought on behalf of the estate of an inmate who died at Monroe County Jail in September 2010.
Maria Viera, who had been known in the city’s northeast neighborhoods as "Maria de la Clinton," died at the age of 53 on Sept. 2, 2010. The cause of death was myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart, according to a 2011 report from the New York State Commission of Correction. El Mensajero Católico obtained a copy of the report through a state Freedom of Information Act request.
Elmer Robert Keach III, an Albany attorney who is representing Viera’s estate, filed the lawsuit in September against Correctional Medical Care (CMC) and several of its employees, Monroe County and Sheriff Patrick O’Flynn for allegedly violating Viera’s constitutional rights through "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs." The suit was amended in December to include the names of CMC employees, and CMC attorneys filed the motion to dismiss on April 17.
CMC’s attorneys did not respond to El Mensajero Católico’s requests for comment.
Keach said in an April 24 phone interview with El Mensajero Católico that he has filed another suit against CMC for the 2011 death of inmate Frederick Haag, who committed suicide under CMC’s care at the Tioga County Jail. Haag’s case is referenced in a separate state Commission of Correction’s report noted in a legal brief filed by Keach. According to court papers, Keach most recently filed a legal complaint against CMC and Schenectady County Jail in connection with the April 2013 death of Nicole Carmen.
"These people are coming in (to the jails), and they have drug problems," Keach said. "Their drug problems are being ignored."
In its 2011 report on Viera’s case, the Commission of Correction stated that its medical review board found fault with the care provided by CMC, a health-care provider based in Blue Bell, Pa., with which Monroe County has contracted since 2008 for care of inmates at the jail.
In a 2010 interview with El Mensajero Católico, Sandra Martínez-Viera said that her mother was a heroin addict who died while in custody at Monroe County Jail following arrest for criminal possession of drugs. The newspaper’s November 2010 story about Viera’s life, addiction and death can be read at elmensajerorochester.com/news/local/programs-help-latinos-overcome-substance-abuse.
In the lawsuit on behalf of Viera’s estate, Keach asserted that: "The need for detainees to have medically supervised withdrawal from drug and alcohol addiction is well-known in both correctional and private medical circles. It is further well-known that when detainees are denied appropriate medically supervised withdrawal from drug and alcohol addiction, this can result in a number of serious health effects, including death. Maria Viera would be alive had she received adequate health care in the face of her serious medical needs during her three-day stay at the Monroe County Jail."
The state report said that Viera’s care was overseen by a nurse with only a year’s experience who mishandled the case. Following Viera’s arraignment on Sept. 1, 2010, the report stated, she was supposed to have been placed on a detoxification list in order to receive a second medical screening, but instead was placed in the jail cell where she died. Miscommunication between the jail’s security staff and CMC medical staff also were cited in the report.
In its written response to the commission report, also obtained by El Mensajero Católico under the Freedom of Information Act, CMC wrote that the nurse involved in Viera’s case had received three months’ orientation under the supervision of the company’s director of nursing. The nurse "was deemed competent for practice in the intake area and had appropriate and available back-up should it have been needed," CMC’s response said.
Monroe County spokesman Justin Feasel declined via e-mail on April 23, 2014, to respond to questions about the lawsuit or the county’s contract with CMC.
In a written response to the Commission of Correction — a copy of which was e-mailed to El Mensajero Católico in April 2013 by Cpl. John Helfer, public information officer for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department — Sheriff Patrick O’Flynn stated that "as in all inmate deaths, we conducted a thorough investigation into all circumstances regarding this matter. That review included a complete evaluation of all deputies noted within your report."
Helfer told El Mensajero Católico in April 2013 that the state Commission of Correction made only one recommendation regarding Viera’s case, advising the sheriff’s office to review the performance of the deputies assigned to her case. The state report had found "that Viera was deceased for an extended period prior to discovery."
Subsequent to news reports in several upstate New York newspapers about nine deaths that occurred under CMC’s care between 2009 and 2011, CMC then-spokeswoman Jessica Bassett told El Mensajero Católico in an April 25, 2013, e-mail that the company consistently meets or exceeds all local and national standards established by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
Additionally, Bassett said that the company employs qualified and dedicated licensed medical personnel and has provided care for inmates in New York for 11 years. In 2011, CMC provided for all of its facility nurses a mandatory education program on the appropriate assessment and management of drug and alcohol withdrawal, she said.
"Furthermore, most of our providers also treat patients in private practice or hospital settings — and there is no difference between the quality of care these professionals provide to their inmate and noninmate patients," she noted.
Bassett also stated that some inmates have pre-existing conditions at the time of incarceration.
"Generally, people who are incarcerated present with more health challenges than the rest of the public," she said. "In certain instances, inmates — just like noninmates — will have negative health outcomes that simply cannot be avoided, even with the best medical care."