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Inmate’s widow files malpractice suit against Niagara County Jail doctor

LOCKPORT – The widow of a Niagara County Jail inmate who died in his cell on Christmas Day 2012 has filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against the jail’s medical director.

The doctor, Steven C. Gasiewicz, in his first public comments on the deaths of two inmates in December 2012, said he did nothing wrong and criticized the state report that accused him of errors that led to the deaths of Daniel Pantera and Tommie Lee Jones four days apart.

The State Supreme Court lawsuit filed by Dawn Pantera accused Gasiewicz, a veteran local emergency room physician working part-time for Armor Correctional Health Services, of “medical malpractice and negligence as a deviation from accepted medical care under the circumstances.”

The families of Pantera, 46, and Jones, 51, separately filed lawsuits in December 2013 against the county and against Armor, which took over medical responsibilities at the jail a few days before the inmates’ deaths. Up until now, Gasiewicz has not been a party to the lawsuits; so far the Jones family has filed no lawsuit against Gasiewicz.

The attorney who filed the new lawsuit, James M. Vandette of Buffalo, did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

A heavily redacted version of a state Commission of Corrections report, obtained by The Buffalo News in October after a Freedom of Information request, accused Gasiewicz of writing an erroneous prescription for Jones and not providing medication for Pantera.

A spokesman for the state Commission of Corrections said the redactions were made to comply with health care privacy laws and declined to release a full version of the report.

Gasiewicz is not named in the report, which calls him “Dr. S.G.” A spokeswoman for Armor, a Florida company, confirmed his identity in October.

Gasiewicz contended Tuesday that both men signed statements refusing medications. “There were individuals, these two, that refused their medications,” he said by telephone.

A source who has seen the complete report confirmed that Jones and Pantera signed forms refusing medications.

“There was never a single prescription written by me for either of these inmates,” Gasiewicz said. “The only time a prescription is written for an inmate is when they’re discharged and we want to assure they have their necessary medicine to see their primary care physician.”

The report says Armor should conduct a “quality improvement investigation” because Jones wasn’t evaluated by the jail physician “in light of documentation of refusal of essential cardiac medications.”

It also says Jones, who had a history of heart trouble, gout and drug addiction, submitted “numerous sick call slips” which apparently weren’t responded to by a doctor.

In the Pantera case, the state report accused Gasiewicz of “grossly incompetent and inadequate care,” and said Pantera should have been hospitalized.

The state report blamed Pantera’s death on “medical neglect and lack of medical and mental health care,” with the immediate cause being hypothermia because of allegedly cold temperatures in the cells of the Special Housing Unit, also known as solitary confinement, where he died.

Gasiewicz said Tuesday, “The cause of death is incorrect. It’s not hypothermia; it’s natural causes.”

The death was complicated by hypertensive cardiovascular disease and hypothyroidism, the report says. Another contributing factor was blacked out.

Pantera had a history of mental health issues, which the report says was known to North Tonawanda police, who arrested him Dec. 10, 2012, for failing to pay for a cup of coffee at a 7-Eleven store.

He was naked much of the time during his incarceration, and sometimes flooded his cell with water. He was seen talking to himself, pushing his food around the floor, and allegedly ran into the wall at full speed on one occasion, knocking himself out.

The available sections of the document also quoted workers at the jail as saying the privatization of medical services resulted in a “chaotic” transfer. The report says Gasiewicz “stated that during the first two weeks, he was trying to figure out the system and that he was seeing every patient complaint for the first one to one and a half weeks as they had a backlog of sick calls. He reported a ‘difficult changeover.’”

The Niagara County Legislature hired Armor on a three-year contract, which officials said at the time would save the county some $800,000 on medical expenses.