Case #2 of top 5 finalists for Public Justice’s 2015 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award

Corporate America and irresponsible government officials consistently trash lawsuits as “frivolous” and trial lawyers as “greedy.” Why? Because lawsuits and trial lawyers hold them accountable when they abuse their power, break the law, and violate people’s rights.

Want proof? Just look at the five finalists for Public Justice’s 2015 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award. This coveted honor goes annually to the lawyers who won the verdict or settlement that made the biggest contribution to the public interest in the past year. The first of the five was featured on this site last week.  Here’s No. 2



Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania v. Wetzell

Solitary confinement can be a harrowing experience for any prisoner. For those with mental illnesses, it is especially brutal. Forced to spend 23 hours each day alone, locked in a tiny cell, prisoners with pre-existing mental health conditions can be utterly destroyed. An exhaustive investigation by the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania discovered that one-third of the 2400 prisoners in solitary confinement in the state had serious mental illnesses. Those prisoners suffered sleeplessness, hallucinations, and paranoia; refused to leave their cells; declined medical treatment; covered themselves with feces; banged their heads against the walls; injured themselves and prison staff; and repeatedly attempted suicide. DRN tried to engage directly with officials at the state Department of Corrections, but when talks proved unsuccessful, it gathered a team and sued.

Led by Robert W. Meek, Kelly L. Darr and Jeffrey M. Skakalski of DRN, with co-counsel from Kairys Rudovsky Messing & Feinberg, LLP, in Philadelphia; Covington and Burling, LLP, in New York; the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project in Philadelphia; and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh, the lawsuit was so meticulously executed that, within weeks of filing, the DOC agreed to negotiate. The resulting settlement is remarkable. It ensures prompt and regular mental health evaluation for all Pennsylvania prisoners, ends solitary confinement for those with serious mental illness absent “exceptional circumstances,” and places limitations on disciplinary measures and the use of force and restraints for prisoners with serious mental illness. The settlement also establishes three types of new mental health treatment units. It won state-wide reform of mental health treatment for 52,000 prisoners in Pennsylvania, including over 4,000 total prisoners in the Pennsylvania correctional system with serious mental illness, when nothing else would work.

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