Calif. Inmates File Class Action Lawsuit Over Valley Fever Threat
By Anne Bucher
California inmates filed a federal class action lawsuit, alleging that 40 people have died of valley fever in two San Joaquin Valley prisons in the last seven years.
Valley fever (Coccidioidomycosis) is a debilitating infectious lung disease that is caused by an airborne fungus. Currently, there is no cure for this disease.
According to a 1994 “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 percent of the reported cases of valley fever in California were in the San Joaquin Valley from 1991-93.
The two San Joaquin Valley prisons named in the class action lawsuit are the Avenal State Prison (ASP) and the Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP). These two prisons are located just 10 miles from each other.
Seven inmates and former inmates who contracted valley fever from either ASP or PVSP filed the class action lawsuit against California Gov. Jerry Brown, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and prison officials. They allege that the state has done nothing to prevent high risk-prisoners from contracting the disease. According to their class action lawsuit, African Americans and people aged 55 and older are more vulnerable to the disease.
According to the class action lawsuit: “Coccidioidomycosis (commonly known as ‘Valley Fever’ or ‘San Joaquin Valley Fever’ or simply ‘cocci’) has long been known as a serious infectious disease which is contracted by the inhalation of an airborne fungus, ‘Coccidioides Immitis.’ Cocci is endemic in the soil of various areas of the Southwest. Nowhere is it more prevalent however, than in the San Joaquin Valley of California . . . . It is well known that disseminated Coccidioidomycosis is progressive, painful, and debilitating, and that it is uniformly fatal once it progresses to meningitis, if left untreated.”
Currently there is no vaccine or cure for valley fever. According to the class action lawsuit, the disease is treated by surgical removal of bone and tissue or by taking the medication Fluconazole for the rest of the victim’s life. They claim that African Americans are more than 10 times more likely to contract valley fever than the rest of the population.
In their class action lawsuit, the plaintiffs sued on behalf of three subclasses of former and current inmates who contracted valley fever, including African Americans, people aged 55 and older, and people who have a compromised immune system. To be eligible to join the class action lawsuit, class members must have been incarcerated at ASP or PVSP after July 8, 2009.
The class action lawsuit plaintiffs claim that, since at least 2006, the defendants have been aware that inmates in the above subclasses were more susceptible to valley fever. Despite knowing about the risks, the defendants have failed to take steps to protect inmates from the disease. As a result, approximately 40 inmates have died from valley fever complications in the last seven years.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ordered state corrections officials to relocate approximately 2,600 high-risk inmates out of ASP and PVSP. The state has 90 days to comply with the order.
In 2012, the U.S. government agreed to pay $425,000 to a former inmate of the Taft Correctional Institution who contracted the disease. The government did not admit any fault in the settlement.
The class action lawsuit seeks punitive damages and a court-supervised medical monitoring program for the members of the subclasses.
Plaintiffs are represented by Mike Arias with Arias, Ozzello & Gignac.
Updated July 19th, 2013
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