HARRISBURG – The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania upheld a ruling dismissing a State Correctional Institute at Rockview inmate’s Eighth Amendment conditions of confinement, negligence and fraud claims, according to an opinion filed Feb. 6 by Judge Anne E. Covey.
In addition to dismissal of Lamar Brown’s claims, the opinion said the Centre County Common Pleas Court sustained preliminary objections filed by Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, SCI-Rockview superintendents Steven Glunt and Mark Garman and other individuals.
These objections challenged a complaint filed on March 16, 2016 “by past and current SCI-Rockview inmates Brown, Warren Evans, Joel Daniels, Ernest Norris, Rashan Mickens, and Shawn Johnson against Wetzel,” the Commonwealth Court opinion said.
“Inmates filed the complaint alleging that, as a result of DOC’s administration failing to act on the knowledge of the existence of asbestos within the facility, one or more inmates were exposed to asbestos at some point between October 2014 and March 2016," the opinion says.
The plaintiffs requested $500,000 each in compensatory damages and an undetermined amount of punitive damages, the Feb. 6 opinion said.
After the trial court sustained the preliminary objections and dismissed Brown’s claims, Brown questioned whether his conditions of confinement claim was properly dismissed “because he did not suffer an injury” and, whether the lower court was right to dismiss his negligence and fraud claims “based on sovereign immunity.”
According to the Commonwealth Court opinion, “it is the general rule of this commonwealth that there can be no recovery of damages for injuries resulting from fright or nervous shock or mental or emotional disturbances or distress unless they are accompanied by physical injury or physical impact.”
“Because inmates are not seeking to prevent future harm, but rather are seeking damages for risk of harm, the trial court properly dismissed Brown’s Eighth Amendment conditions of confinement claim on the basis that he did not suffer an injury as required under (Pennsylvania law),” Covey wrote.
The judge also rejected Brown’s argument that “the trial court erred by dismissing his negligence and fraud claims based on sovereign immunity.”
“This court has held that ‘when an employee of a commonwealth agency was acting within the scope of his or her duties, the commonwealth employee is protected by sovereign immunity from the imposition of liability for intentional tort claims,’” the opinion said.
Despite Brown’s argument on appeal that “his negligence claim falls under the real estate exception to sovereign immunity,” the opinion said “we do not reach the dispositive issue of whether a dangerous condition caused or facilitated an injury because Brown has alleged no injury. Accordingly, the preliminary objection as to Brown’s negligence claim was properly sustained.”
Similarly, Covey said in her opinion that the trial court was right to sustain the objection to Brown’s fraud claim “because Brown did not allege that Sampsel, Garman, Moore and Varner were acting outside the scope of their employment.”