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Niagara County, jail medical providers to pay settlements in 2 deaths

The survivors of two men who died in custody in the Niagara County Jail - including one case that was ruled a homicide, although no charges were filed - will receive cash settlements from Niagara County and the companies that provided medical care for inmates.

County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said Wednesday that the widow of Daniel Pantera, who died in the Lockport jail in 2012, will receive $500,000. The mother of DeJuan L. Hunt II, who died in 2016, will be paid $275,000.

The County Legislature voted Tuesday night to pay $50,000 toward the Pantera settlement and $125,000 toward the Hunt settlement.

"I think those were reasonable amounts, given the circumstances of the cases," Joerg said.

He said the remaining $450,000 owed to widow Dawn Pantera will come from Armor Correctional Health Services, a Florida company which was the jail's medical service provider at the time of his death.

Besides the county share of the Hunt settlement, Joerg said his mother, Jenine M. Townsend, will be paid $150,000 by PrimeCare Medical, the Pennsylvania firm which is the current jail medical contractor.

DeJuan Hunt, 25, was found dead in his cell at the Niagara County Jail on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. (Courtesy of DeJuan Hunt’s family).

An Erie County medical examiner ruled the death of Hunt, who was charged with two sexual assaults, was a homicide because it didn't fit the other choices on a death certificate: natural, accidental, suicide, or undetermined.

Nine days before his death on Aug. 29, 2016, Hunt, 25, fought with corrections officers who subdued him after he took off a special vest he was wearing to try to prevent suicide.

A State Commission of Corrections report in 2015 said Pantera's cell in the solitary confinement area was so cold that he might have died of hypothermia.

Pantera, 46, died on Christmas Day 2012. The state report said he was mentally ill and was kept in solitary confinement, where he stripped off his clothes and slept on the floor, and at one point ran full-speed into the wall and knocked himself out. He was in jail for shoplifting a cup of coffee.

The state report said Dr. Steven C. Gasiewicz, the local physician hired by Armor as jail medical director, made errors in care that led to the deaths of Pantera and Tommie Lee Jones, another inmate who died four days later.

In 2015, Armor paid Jones' daughter a $100,000 settlement. Jones, 51, who was being held as a parole violator, died of heart failure and emphysema that had not been properly treated.

Asked if the county is admitting wrongdoing by settling the other lawsuits, Joerg said, "We're paying money, so whatever that indicates is what it indicates."

Sheriff James R. Voutour declined to comment on the outcome of the cases.

Pantera's attorney, James M. Vandette, did not return a call seeking comment.

"Armor respects the privacy of its former employee and client. It would not be appropriate for us to comment on current or pending litigation," an Armor spokeswoman said.

Townsend's lawyer, Scott M. Schwartz, said he had not sued PrimeCare, although he had drawn up papers to do so, and he confirmed that company was part of the settlement. PrimeCare, which started a contract at the jail 29 days before Hunt died, did not respond to a request for comment.

Schwartz said Townsend was not happy about "losing her son in consideration of a settlement." But the attorney added, "Not being deposed, not having to testify, there's some value in that."

An Erie County medical examiner found bruises on Hunt's shins that might have contributed to rhabdomyolysis, a syndrome in which muscle fiber dies and damages the kidneys, sometimes causing them to fail.

Townsend, who could not be reached this week, said at the time that she thought her son had been beaten, an allegation Voutour consistently denied.

Voutour said at a news conference in February 2017 that a baton had been pressed against Hunt's shin in an effort to subdue him.

District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszsek said June 30 that no criminal charges would be filed in the Hunt case. She said then that surveillance video was viewed and extensive interviews conducted with the officers.

"The independent investigation found that actions by the corrections officers were proper, and their administration did not exceed acceptable parameters," said a statement Wojtaszek issued at the time. "Further, medical analysis revealed that, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, Mr. Hunt’s medical condition could not have been foreseen by medical staff. Lastly, the independent investigation determined that there was no deviation from the standard of care by the Niagara County Jail medical providers.”

Hunt, a Niagara Falls resident, had been charged with sexually assaulting two women on the Sanborn campus of Niagara County Community College in separate incidents in the summer of 2016.

The incidents led to the forced resignation of NCCC President James P. Klyczek after a surreptitiously made recording of his comments on the case was leaked to local media. On the recording, Klyczek called one of the victim's actions "as dumb as can be."

The college still faces a civil suit over the comments, filed by the victim.

Meanwhile, the Legislature voted to sue Armor to try to recover the legal fees the county ran up on the Pantera case. Joerg said the county will owe the Buffalo law firm of Gibson, McAskill and Crosby between $50,000 and $80,000.

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