By John Monk, TheState.com
COLUMBIA, S.C. A multi-million dollar class action lawsuit brought by inmates at the S.C. Department of Corrections over a lack of treatment for potentially fatal hepatitis C received initial approval by a federal judge on Tuesday.
Judge Margaret Seymour gave preliminary approval shortly before noon Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Columbia after hearing from lawyers representing the prison system and its director, Bryan Stirling, and also lawyers representing inmates who have tested positive for hepatitis C, a liver disease.
“This action today is going to save 1,184 lives,” inmates’ lawyer Reuben Guttman told Seymour during the hearing.
Actually, the number is likely to be closer to 2,000 inmates’ lives, Stirling and attorneys for the inmates said following the hearing. Nearly 5,000 of the prison system’s approximately 18,125 inmates still have to be tested, they said.
Even before Tuesday’s preliminary hearing, prison officials became aware that hundreds of inmates with hepatitis C were going unrecognized and untreated and, in reaction to the lawsuit, had instituted programs to identify and treat infected inmates.
And last year, the S.C. General Assembly — warned by Stirling of the situation — appropriated $10 million in the current fiscal year’s budget for the prison system to get started on an identification and treatment program. It will cost between $4,000 to $15,000 to identify and treat each infected inmate, Stirling said after court Tuesday. But some inmates could cost less because they are in an earlier, more easily treated, stage of the disease, he said.
That $15,000 estimated maximum cost is much cheaper than it used to cost to treat hepatitis C. The medicine that cures it over a several month process, once cost some $80,000 per sick person.
Since untreated hepatitis C can develop into diseases with very costly treatment, such as liver cancer, treating inmates in prison before their cases become serious will result in long term savings to S.C. taxpayers, Stirling said.
“Eighty-five percent of inmates return to society within five years,” Stirling said. If they are not cured in prison, they potentially can spread the disease upon release, he said.
Under the Constitution, it is “cruel and unusual” punishment to deny inmates medical treatment. Inmates have a constitutional right to appropriate and timely medical treatment, courts have consistently held.
Moreover, federal courts in numerous states have ruled against prison systems that fought spending money to identify and treat inmates with hepatitis C.
Before the lawsuit, which was filed in March 2018, the S.C. prison system had no broad-based program in place to identify and treat inmates who would test positive for hepatitis C.
The lawsuit didn’t ask for money. It asked for Corrections to offer testing to all inmates and offer treatment to inmates who tested positive for Hepatitis C. The total amount of money Corrections will spend in the future is not known at this point. The cost could run into the millions.
During the hearing, the inmates’ attorney, praised Corrections’ lawyers for working “to do right” without a lot of “constant fighting and push back. … Ultimately, what this came down to was how we get everybody with hepatitis C treated.”
Attorney Buddy Arthur, a private lawyer retained by Corrections, told Seymour that Stirling’s attitude of wanting to resolve the problems in a just way brought closure to the case. “I don’t think we would be here today if it were not for Director Stirling … if he were not willing to approach this with judgment and forward thinking,” Arthur said.
A settlement was in the best interests of both inmates and the prison system, parties to the case said after court.
Hepatitis C is spread by exposure to blood or blood products. The most common way to contract the disease is through intravenous drug use. But people also can be infected through tattooing or blood transfusions.
At Tuesday’s hearing, inmate Willie Jackson, 66, a named class plaintiff, appeared by video conference in the courtroom. He has tested positive for hepatitis C and is serving a life sentence for multiple convictions, including burglary, criminal sexual conduct first degree and grand larceny.
The class action lawsuit was begun by Christopher Bryant, a young Charleston attorney who had just finished a clerkship with U.S. Judge Richard Gergel and begun private practice. Bryant took on as a client a lone S.C. Department of Corrections inmate who had tested positive for hepatitis C and wasn’t getting treated.
Digging into the matter, Bryant — now working for the Seattle firm of Perkins Coie and based in Washington DC — found out about similar lawsuits in other states and believed his inmate’s lawsuit was a good candidate for a class action that would help all inmates. “I thought our case was rock solid — it was just a matter of how to get there.”
Bryant eventually brought Guttman and his large Washington DC firm into the case because it had class action experience and the resources to do the extensive detailed work necessary for such a complex case.
On Tuesday, Guttman, who has more than 25 years as a lawyer, told Judge Seymour that, “Twenty years from now, my claim to fame will be that I practiced law with a young lawyer named Christopher Bryant.”
Not all inmates want to be tested. Of the 13,432 inmates who were offered tests so far, 10,875 agreed to be tested. Offers of tests to all inmates should be completed by June.
Final approval is expected later this spring. A federal magistrate will monitor the progress of the prison system’s program as part of the settlement. Also representing the inmates Tuesday was Columbia lawyer Jim Griffin.
Available online at https://www.thestate.com/news/local/crime/article239271673.html