Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Family of incarcerated man sues Allegheny County Jail, Allegheny Health Network over death

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

The family of a man who died at Allegheny County Jail filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday alleging that the jail, county, and Allegheny Health Network created a culture in which incarcerated people with disabilities are discriminated against and their medical needs are left unmet, resulting in the wrongful death of Anthony Talotta and others.

Talotta, who had autism and intellectual disabilities, was incarcerated on Sept. 10, 2022 after he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a caretaker at the group home where he lived. Ten days later, Talotta was found unresponsive in his cell on a mental health pod and transferred to UPMC Mercy Hospital. He was pronounced dead on Sept. 21, 2022. Jail administrators released Talotta from custody hours before his death.

According to the complaint, medical staff in the jail’s intake department knew that Talotta, 57, had intellectual and developmental disabilities that would have made managing his life in jail “nearly impossible.” They noted in his record that Talotta had “severe mental retardation, autism, anxiety, and depression … [and] appeared to be vulnerable and very child like [sic],” though the lawsuit adds that the conditions weren’t properly documented later.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Talotta had been previously diagnosed with diabetes and hypertension and suffered fractures to his right foot and “significant blistering and bruising” during the alleged assault, after a metal sink filled with boiling water fell on it. The suit alleges that these diagnoses were not properly documented or flagged and that Talotta’s medical records were “inaccurate, inconsistent, and did not follow correctional standards.” It claims documents recording care were left blank or incomplete and some were allegedly altered after Talotta’s death.

Lawyers for Talotta’s cousin, who filed the suit, said that because of his disabilities, Talotta was “prohibited” from accessing the jail’s medical housing unit, where his diabetes and foot wounds could have been addressed. They claim he received no treatment for his diabetes or foot during his incarceration, which resulted in his foot developing “at least active three different bacterial infections.” They added that jail administrators did not allow Talotta to use the antibiotics, wound dressings, crutches, and other mobility devices prescribed to him over two separate trips to local hospitals.

The county medical examiner concluded that Talotta died from hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, but the lawsuit claims Talotta died from sepsis, the “obvious” signs of which it argues ACJ doctors ignored.

Talotta’s death was “entirely preventable,” said Jaclyn Kurin, a staff attorney at the Abolitionist Law Center and a lawyer for the plaintiff. “He would be here today if he had been given basic medical care for his infection. But he's not here because the jail and medical staff discriminated against him because of his mental health and intellectual disabilities.”

She noted that a “significant percentage” of incarcerated people have mental health issues.

“We also know that those people who have autism or other intellectual disabilities are the most vulnerable in that population and need the most attention and need the most care because of the difficulty to communicate their medical needs,” Kurin said. “What we see happening is that these people are not getting the care that they are entitled to by federal law.”

The complaint also names former ACJ medical director Donald Stechschulte and physician Wilson Bernales, the only two medical doctors at the facility when Talotta was incarcerated, as well as an unknown physician staffing agency that was employed by AHN and Allegheny County to find, recruit, and hire Bernales.

Not long after Talotta’s death, a Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigation revealed that Bernales had his medical license suspended, revoked or denied in at least eight different states, though he was licensed to practice medicine in Pennsylvania. AHN later suspended Bernales pending an assessment of his qualifications and state license.

Bernales allegedly knew Talotta was not being treated for infections. The lawsuit alleges that Talotta “presented obvious signs and symptoms attributable to sepsis” when he was found unresponsive in his cell and a medical emergency was called. Lawyers for the family said Bernales gave Talotta Benadryl and sent him back to his cell. They claim another incarcerated person had to carry Talotta to his cell, as he was unable to walk or speak.

The suit alleges that the county, AHN and the staffing agency failed to properly screen Bernales’ employment and medical licensure history, resulting in “negligence,” inadequate care to patients incarcerated at the jail and Talotta’s death.

Kurin said that while the lawsuit was filed to “vindicate Mr. Talotta’s rights,” it has larger implications for people incarcerated at ACJ.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Talotta’s situation demonstrates the failures all across the board. From failure to provide proper care to failure to document,” she said, adding that jail administrators are seemingly not conducting mortality reviews after critical incidents, despite a recommendation that they do so from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care in a “historical review of fatalities” commissioned just before Talotta’s death.

“This suit is also about bringing transparency and seeking justice for the other people who have lost their lives at the jail in these past few years,” Kurin said, referring to the 22 other men who have died following their incarceration at the jail since 2020. (Some died in the facility, others died in the hospital following their release.)

“Their deaths are the result of the jail and AHN’s failure to comply with basic correctional standards,” Kurin said. “It's the hope that by pursuing this lawsuit, that maybe we can prevent there from being more people like Mr. Talotta losing their life unnecessarily.”

Community members and some on the county’s Jail Oversight Board have raised concerns about the number of deaths of individuals either housed or recently housed at the jail since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the quality of health care at the facility and living conditions.

A recent report from the county controller’s office found that both corrections officers and medical staff at the jail are “grossly understaffed” and struggle to retain employees, some of whom have alleged a “toxic” work environment. Advocates have voiced concerns that the dysfunction is affecting those incarcerated at the jail.

Auditors found a 44% vacancy rate for healthcare positions staffed by county employees and temporary agencies. (AHN provides advanced practitioners, such as physicians and psychiatrists, which were not examined in the audit.)

At the time, Orlando Harper — the jail’s warden until his retirement last month — responded, saying the audit’s findings “misrepresented” the jail’s healthcare services.

JOB members have asked jail officials in the past for medical records and investigation results for people who died in jail, as well as those who were released from custody in some cases hours before dying in the hospital. Officials have declined to provide the information, citing the threat of future litigation.

“Learning that Anthony’s death could have been prevented has been gut-wrenching,” Talotta’s family said in a statement. “His death represents not only the failure to care for someone who so obviously needs (and needed) care, but a greater systemic failure as to how Allegheny County and Allegheny Health Network might treat someone like Anthony.”

Spokespeople for the county, ACJ and AHN declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at