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Appeals court reinstates Valley Fever suits against US

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Federal officials had a responsibility to warn prisoners about a potentially deadly airborne fungus before transferring them to a Central California prison and could be held liable if they failed to do so, a federal appeals court said Friday.

The ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated lawsuits against the federal government by two prisoners who contracted Valley Fever at Taft Correctional Institution. The facility is owned by the federal Bureau of Prisons, but operated by independent contractors. It experienced a Valley Fever outbreak in 2003.

Lower courts dismissed the prisoners' lawsuits against the government on the grounds that the independent contractors, not federal officials, were responsible for day-to-day operations at the prison.

But the 9th Circuit said the federal government retained some responsibilities, including a duty to warn prisoners about Valley Fever and protect them from it. Only the federal government had authority to assign prisoners to Taft and construct and modify buildings there. The prisoners, Gregory Edison and Richard Nuwintore, said covered walkways would have reduced their exposure to dust that could contain Valley Fever spores.

The U.S. Attorney's office in Sacramento, which represented the government, said it was reviewing the decision.

Ian Wallach, an attorney for the prisoners, said his clients continue to feel the effects of Valley Fever.

"At least now they can go before a jury and say, 'Hey, they need to pay for my medicine, that I can't walk up a flight of stairs anymore.'"

Valley fever is found most often in the southwestern United States, with about a third of the cases in California and more than 60 percent in Arizona, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of cases has risen over the years and hit nearly 18,000 in 2012, according to the CDC.

Symptoms can include a cough, headache and night sweats. In severe cases, Valley Fever can lead to chronic pneumonia, meningitis and bone and joint infection.

The fungus has also hit state prisons in the Central Valley. The federal official who controls medical care in California prisons in 2013 ordered thousands of high-risk inmates out of two Central Valley state prisons in response to dozens of deaths due to Valley fever. In addition to the deaths, the fungus had hospitalized hundreds of inmates.

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