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The Cost of Medical Neglect in Washington Prisons

By Sam Rutherford

The case, Corner v. State of Washington , [see page 6] is only one of many medical neglect suits that the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) has settled. In fact, below is a comprehensive list of the medical neglect cases filed by prisoners that the DOC settled between 1994 and 2000. This compilation is the result of a lengthy PLN investigation, and reveals that medical care in Washington prisons, like those in many other states, is at best totally inadequate.

PLN is publishing this information for several reasons, beyond the fact that it shows the DOC's unwillingness to provide meaningful health care to prisoners. First, the settlements demonstrate what the DOC is willing to pay when prisoners are harmed through its medical neglect. Litigants should use this information as a benchmark by which to compare any offer made by the Attorney General's office during settlement negotiations.

Second, the settlements below clearly demonstrate that medical neglect suits against the DOC can result in significant damage awards and attorneys' fees. Contrary to popular belief among the personal injury bar, prison medical suits do in fact pay and sometimes even pay big. This information can be used by pro se litigants in attempting to obtain counsel on a contingency basis.

Finally, PLN hopes to raise public awareness of the fact that the DOC would rather continue settling medical neglect suits with taxpayer dollars than simply correcting the systemic problems the cases below illustrate. Many of these suits resulted from either outright malpractice or total indifference to prisoners' medical needs, and could have been prevented by hiring competently trained medical staff at no additional cost to the Washington taxpayers. [See: PLN , Nov. 2001, "Washington's Island of Deviant Doctors," for examples of the caliber of medical staff employed by the DOC.]

It may also be that the DOC has made the political and financial decision that it is cheaper and easier to pay the occasional settlement, and continue killing or maiming prisoners through medical neglect, than it is to provide adequate health care. However, larger damage awards in medical neglect suits may be just the catalyst needed to convince the DOC that this position is untenable.

At this point, the amount of money paid out in medical neglect suits is relatively small in comparison to the DOC's multi-million dollar budget. However, given the pervasiveness of medical neglect within Washington prisons, the DOC's potential liability is great and the amount could increase significantly.

By way of analogy, for nearly 15 years the DOC paid hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to settle parole liability suits. This ineptitude didn't attract attention until recently when juries began returning multi-million dollar verdicts for the DOC's failure to properly supervise parolees and probationers. [See PLN , May 2001, for details.] Likewise, no one will begin paying close attention to the DOC's mismanagement of its health care system until that mismanagement becomes too expensive to ignore.

$630,000 plus paid in ulcer related death

On May 16, 1994, Gertrude Barrow, 41, died at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) of a perforated chronic peptic ulcer and acute peritonitis. She was just three months short of her release date.

At the time of her incarceration in 1993, Ms. Barrow had a diagnosed ulcer condition and sought medical attention for it throughout the duration of her confinement. Despite her best efforts, WCCW medical staff continually ignored her repeated requests for treatment, and in fact prescribed medication that exacerbated her ulcer. The last weeks of Ms. Barrows life were spent in excruciating agony, and her complaints and medical condition were ignored until it was too late to ease her pain and save her life.

Following her death, Ms. Barrow's estate sued the DOC. The case was settled prior to trial for a principal sum of $630,000. Ms. Barrow's children will also receive structured monthly payments over the course of the next 15 years that total nearly an additional $600,000. Ms. Barrow's estate was represented by Katrin Frank of MacDonald, Hoague, & Bayless, a Seattle law firm. See: Spearman v. State of Washington , No. 95-2-12840-3 (Pierce County Superior Court, Jan. 17, 1996).

$225,000 paid in mentally ill prisoner's death

In 1991, John E. Rickert was placed in the DOC's custody to serve a sentence upon conviction of a crime. Mr. Rickert was suffering from an unspecified mental illness at the time of his incarceration, of which the DOC was aware.

Initially, Mr. Rickert was housed at the Special Offender Center (SOC), in Monroe, Washington. The SOC is responsible for evaluating and treating mentally ill prisoners within the state of Washington. At the SOC, Mr. Rickert's mental illness was stabilized with medication and he began to participate in treatment sessions. His mother, Ginette Rickert, was involved in and monitored the course of treatment the DOC was providing during this period.

Mr. Rickert was subsequently transferred to the Washington State Penitentiary ("WSP") in Walla Walla, Washington, where he was housed in a mental health unit. When Ms. Rickert questioned the DOC's transfer decision, she was assured that her son's condition had improved and that he was doing well. In reality, Mr. Rickert's condition had deteriorated to the point where he was no longer showering, eating, or caring for himself at all. WSP staff failed to intervene, and Mr. Rickert eventually died alone in his cell.

Ms. Rickert filed suit, alleging that the DOC had acted negligently in failing to care for and supervise her son. Although denying any wrongdoing, the DOC agreed to settle the case for $225,000 and to evaluate its policies regarding the treatment and monitoring of mentally ill prisoners. Ms. Rickert was represented by Margaret Cunniff-Holm of Connelly, Holm, Tacom & Meserve, an Olympia law firm. See: Rickert v. State of Washington , No. 95-2-03923-2 (Thurston County Superior Court, Feb. 5, 1999).

$180,000 for loss of vision in left eye

On May 17, 1995, Joseph Johnson was incarcerated in the Spokane County Jail. That evening a fight broke out between two prisoners, and Mr. Johnson assisted jailers in quelling the disturbance. In the process of breaking up the fight, Mr. Johnson was hit in the left eye.

Within 45 minutes, Mr. Johnson began having a migraine headache, felt nauseated and his vision was blurred. After reporting these symptoms to jail staff, Mr. Johnson was informed that he would be transferred to the Washington Corrections Center (WCC), in Shelton, Washington, the following day and would receive treatment for his injury there.

Upon arrival at the WCC, Mr. Johnson informed medical personnel of his injury and symptoms. He was told that an appointment with an ophthalmologist would be arranged. Although Mr. Johnson continued to complain of deteriorating vision and headaches, he was not seen by a specialist until June 19, 1995.

The specialist determined that Mr. Johnson had suffered a retinal detachment and immediately recommended surgery. Unfortunately, the surgery was unsuccessful because the DOC had waited too long before referring Mr. Johnson to an ophthalmologist. He is now blind in his left eye.

Mr. Johnson sued the DOC for 3 million dollars, but ultimately settled for $180,000. He was represented by attorney Dan Johnson of Spokane. See: Johnson v. State of Washington , No. 97-2-05055-9 (Pierce County Superior Court, Sept. 10, 1997).

$100,000 for brain damaged prisoner

In the Winter of 1966, Lawrence Jordan was a prisoner at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe, Washington. On March 7 of that year, Mr. Jordan submitted to eye muscle surgery by the WSR ophthalmologist. He was placed under general anesthesia and subsequently went into cardiac arrest, which caused severe, permanent brain damage. He was just 17 years old at the time.

Nearly 20 years later, Mr. Jordan, through a guardian ad item, sued the DOC. In 1995, the case was settled for $100,000, plus an annuity payment of $1,500 per month for the rest of Mr. Jordan's life. The money was placed in a trust to be used for Mr. Jordan's benefit because he is too brain damaged to care for himself. Mr. Jordan was represented by Steven R. Pruzan of Miracle, Pruzan & Pruzan.

$62,000 in slip and fall/medical neglect/retaliation case

Karen Posey was incarcerated at the WCCW on April 25, 1996. During her medical intake, Ms. Posey informed clinic staff that she had a large screw in the front of her foot that made it difficult for her to climb up or down ladders. Ms. Posey received a Health Status Report (HSR) assigning her to a lower bunk.

Despite the HSR, WCCW staff placed Ms. Posey in an upper bunk, and then ignored her repeated complaints that it was difficult for her to navigate the ladder on the bunk. On June 16, 1996, on her way down the bunk bed ladder, Ms. Posey slipped and fell. She landed face-first on a metal desk, and then fell onto the floor, hitting her right shoulder. As a result of the fall, Ms. Posey cracked several teeth, injured her jaw, broke her glasses, and sustained shoulder and arm injuries.

After the fall, WCCW ignored Ms. Posey's medical needs and failed to provide adequate treatment for her injuries, causing her to file several grievances. She was subsequently transferred to Pine Lodge Pre-Release in Spokane, Washington, where her medical needs were again neglected and ignored. Finally, after being sent to work release in Seattle, Ms. Posey's ongoing physical problems were seriously addressed and treated.

Ms. Posey filed suit, alleging a deprivation of her civil rights, negligence, and retaliation. The DOC settled the case for $62,000. Ms. Posey was represented by Katrin Frank of MacDonald, Hoague & Bayless. See: Posey v. Payne , No. C99-5326 (RJB)JKA (U.S.D.C. W.D. Wash., Aug. 9, 2000).

$40,000 for Achilles tendon injury

On August 21, 1993, while incarcerated at the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center (CRCC) in Connell, Washington, Richard Yamamoto suffered a severe injury to his right Achilles tendon. The nature, extent, and severity of the injury was misdiagnosed and mistreated by CRCC medical staff. As a result, the torn Achilles tendon was allowed to atrophy to such a degree that Mr. Yamamoto suffered permanent, irreversible damage to his right foot, tendon, calf, and leg. In fact, Mr. Yamamoto did not receive surgical intervention until nearly a year later, after he was transferred to the Pine Lodge Pre-Release.

Following his release from prison, Mr. Yamamoto sued the DOC for medical neglect. The case eventually settled for $40,000.Mr. Yamamoto was represented by attorney L. Neil Axtell of Spokane. See: Yamamoto v. State of Washington , No. 96-2-5022101 (Franklin County Superior Court, August 2000).

$25,000 paid for misdiagnosed blood clot

In January of 1996, Valerie Bartlett was sent to the WCCW to serve a short prison sentence. Upon arrival, she complained of swollen legs and feet, general fatigue, and chest pains. These symptoms persisted and Ms. Bartlett continued to seek medical attention, but WCCW medical staff refused to examine her or refer her to a doctor. They did, however, tell Ms. Bartlett that her symptoms were "in her head" and subsequently sent her to a psychologist.

Finally, after 7 weeks of suffering, Ms. Bartlett collapsed and was taken to the hospital. Doctors soon discovered that she had a large blood clot in her heart which had caused the left ventricle to swell to twice its normal size, and that her liver and kidneys had begun to shut down. Although she nearly died, doctors were able to stabilize Ms. Bartlett's condition with medication and a proper diet.

Following her release from prison, Ms. Bartlett sued the DOC for medical neglect. The case was settled for $25,000. Ms. Bartlett was represented by attorney W. Russell Van Camp of Spokane. See: Bartlett v. State of Washington , No. 97-2-046593 (Spokane County Superior Court, June 1999).

$15,000 in allergy/retaliation suit

Between October of 1994 and August of 1995, Ricardo Bowman was confined at WSR. Mr. Bowman repeatedly complained of severe allergic reactions to dust, dust mites, and certain foods. These reactions caused pain and swelling in his eye, head, neck, and shoulder.

Despite his continuous complaints and requests for treatment, WSR medical staff did nothing to alleviate Mr. Bowman's suffering. He subsequently filed grievances complaining of inadequate medical care. WSR responded to these grievances by retaliating against Mr. Bowman and infracting him for "faking" a medical condition.

Mr. Bowman filed suit in federal court, alleging medical neglect, cruel and unusual punishment, and retaliation. The case was ultimately settled for $15,000. Mr. Bowman was represented by attorney Charles S. Hamilton, III, of Seattle. See: Bowman v. Corpuz , No. C95-43Z (U.S.D.C. W.D. Wash., Nov. 25, 1997).

$13,500 for ruptured appendix

In the early morning hours of October 28, 1995, Arnold Kitchen awoke in his cell at the Airway Heights Corrections Center (AHCC), near Spokane, Washington, in excruciating pain. His symptoms included severe abdominal pain of a sudden onset and vomiting of a "brownish/green mushy" substance. Mr. Kitchen immediately reported his condition to AHCC staff, who told him he was probably suffering from the flu. He was given Tylenol and told to return to his cell.

Mr. Kitchen's condition continued to deteriorate over the course of the next several days. He could no longer walk without assistance, his abdomen was swollen and extremely painful, and he continued to vomit. Mr. Kitchen's condition was so grave that other prisoners began to seek assistance on his behalf. Again, AHCC staff did nothing.

Finally, on November 1, 1995, Mr. Kitchen was taken to the AHCC infirmary where he was diagnosed with dehydration and placed on intravenous fluids. Because his symptoms did not subside, Mr. Kitchen was transported to Deaconness Medical Center in Spokane, where doctors discovered a ruptured appendix. Emergency surgery was immediately performed, and Mr. Kitchen's life was saved.

Following his ordeal, Mr. kitchen sued AHCC staff in federal court for violating his civil rights. The DOC agreed to settle the case for $13,500. Mr. Kitchen was represented by attorney Darol Tuttle of Tacoma. See: Kitchen v. Sgt. Kiser , No. CS-96-007-RHW (U.S.D.C. E.D. Wash., Sept. 3, 1998).

$8,500 for surgical mishap

In March of 1995, Jerry Thomas, a prisoner at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC), near Port Angeles, Washington, injured his right hand. CBCC medical staff determined that surgery was warranted, and Mr. Thomas was subsequently transported to the Olympic Memorial Hospital to undergo the "open reduction and internal fixation" procedure. The surgery was performed by Dr. Richard Thorson, M.D.

Several weeks after the surgery, Dr. Thorson traveled to the CBCC to re-examine Mr. Thomas' hand. After the cast and bandages were removed, Mr. Thomas noticed that his hand was swollen, red and raw. Although Dr. Thorson was initially evasive concerning this irritation, he finally admitted that he had burned Mr. Thomas with a medical instrument during the surgery.

After his release from prison, Mr. Thomas filed a complaint with the Division of Risk Management. Several months later, Risk Management agreed to settle the tort claim for $8,500. Mr. Thomas was represented by attorney James Lanza of Bellevue. See: Matter of Thomas , Tort Claim No. 31032074-01 (April 29, 1998).

$6,000 for amputated ring finger

In the Summer of 1993, Donnie Hayes was confined at the McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC), near Steilacoom, Washington. He was assigned to work in the MICC kitchen.

On July 21 of that year, MICC kitchen staff instructed Mr. Hayes and six other prisoners to transport food carts to the segregation unit. The prisoners complained that the kitchen did not have the appropriate equipment for unloading the food carts from the truck used to carry them to the segregation unit, such as a hydraulic lift or a ramp, and that someone was likely to get injured.

The following morning, on July 22, Mr. Hayes dropped a food cart while unloading it from the truck. His left hand was pinned beneath the cart and the tip of his ring finger was severed. For nearly five months, MICC medical staff simply bandaged the partially amputated finger, and refused to allow Mr. Hayes to see a doctor outside of the facility. Eventually, Mr. Hayes was transported to Saint Joseph's Hospital in Tacoma, where doctors performed surgical revision on the amputated finger.

Mr. Hayes subsequently filed a complaint with the Division of Risk Management. The tort claim was settled for $6,000. See: Matter of Hayes , Tort Claim No. 31023889-01 (Aug. 8, 1996).

$5,000 paid for failure to treat iritis

While incarcerated at the WSP in 1993, Terry Miller contracted iritis in his right eye. The eye was extremely swollen, red and painful when he reported to the clinic on May 4, 1993. Despite the obviousness of the problem, medical staff did nothing to ensure that Mr. Miller was seen by an optometrist or ophthalmologist, or that he was provided with appropriate medication.

After more than two months of suffering, Mr. Miller filed suit in federal court. The DOC ultimately settled the case for $5,000 and a promise to provide appropriate medical care for Mr. Miller's eye condition. Mr. Miller was represented by attorney James Gillespie of Spokane. See: Miller v. Christensen , No. CS-94-438-JLQ (U.S.D.C. E.D. Wash., Feb. 12, 1996).

$5,000 for severed tendon

On April 5, 1993, a Physician's Assistant at the WSP severed a tendon in Walter Mathis' left thumb. This injury resulted in the loss of ability to extend the thumb, and required surgery to attempt correction of the problem. Even after the surgery, Mr. Mathis will never regain full use of his left thumb.

Mr. Mathis subsequently filed a tort claim with the Division of Risk Management, which was settled for $5,000. Mr. Mathis was represented by attorney David Hevel of Kennewick. See: Matter of Mathis , Tort Claim No. 31008333 (Aug. 22, 1995).

$1,500 paid for failure to provide pain medication

On July 7, 1993, Leonard Willis dropped a 65-pound weight on his left ring finger while incarcerated at the CRCC. The injury was extraordinarily painful, and Mr. Willis immediately sought medical attention. Although he pleaded for adequate pain medication and proper medical treatment, none was provided. After two days of suffering, Mr. Willis was transported to a doctor outside the facility who immediately prescribed pain medication and then amputated part of the crushed finger.

Mr. Willis filed a tort claim with the Division of Risk Management, alleging that CRCC medical staff acted negligently in refusing to provide pain medication. Risk Management settled the claim for $1,500. Mr. Willis was represented by attorney Theodore Spearman of Bainbridge Island. See: Matter of Willis , Tort Claim No. 31007780 (April 29, 1994).

$1,500 for refusal to treat HIV positive cancer patient

In 1996, Samuel Page was confined at the WSP. Mr. Page is HIV positive and had cancer. When he sought treatment for his condition, Dr. Alfred Marur, the contract physician for the WSP, refused to address Mr. Page's medical needs.

Mr. Page sued Dr. Marur and other WSP officials in federal court, alleging that Dr. Marur refused to operate on any "negro with HIV." The DOC settled the case for $1,500 and agreed to transfer Mr. Page to another prison. Mr. Page was represented by Kevin Mahoney of Roberts & Mahoney, a Spokane law firm. See: Page v. Wood , No. CS-96-380-CI (U.S.D.C. E.D. Wash., July 10, 1998).

$1,500 for failure to assist disabled prisoner

In 1999, Ronald Christner was confined at the AHCC. Mr. Christner is disabled and requires assistance in attending to his personal hygiene needs. On August 8, Mr. Christner was given a bath by AHCC nursing staff. Although he was supposed to be constantly monitored and assisted while bathing, AHCC staff left him unattended in a tub for more than an hour. Mr. Christner subsequently slipped, hit his head and was rendered unconscious.

Mr. Christner filed a tort claim with the Division of Risk Management, alleging that AHCC nursing staff were medically negligent in failing to properly assist him in bathing. Risk Management settled the claim for $1,500. Mr. Christner was not represented by counsel. See: Matter of Christner , Tort Claim No. 31050438 (Feb. 22, 2000).

$1,000 for unnecessary appendectomy

In May through June of 1994, Robert Falcone was incarcerated at the Lewis County Jail in the custody of the DOC. Medical staff at the jail misdiagnosed and mistreated Mr. Falcone, resulting in his receiving an unnecessary appendectomy. Mr. Falcone's neck glands also became seriously infected and damaged as a result of the jail's negligence.

Mr. Falcone sued both the jail and the DOC for medical neglect. The case was settled for $1,000. Mr. Falcone was represented by attorney L. Neil Axtell. See: Falcone v. State of Washington , No. 97-2-05213-5 (Spokane County Superior Court, 1997).

$250 for lack of aftercare following stroke

On February 8, 1996, while incarcerated at the WSP, Frederick Aylward suffered a stroke. The stroke severely limited Mr. Aylward's mobility. Following the stroke, WSP medical staff refused to provide physical therapy to assist Mr. Falcone in attempting to recover some of his lost mobility and, as a result, he is now permanently disabled.

Mr. Aylward filed a tort claim with the Division of Risk Management, alleging medical neglect. The claim was settled for $250. Mr. Aylward was not represented by counsel. See: Matter of Aylward , Tort Claim No. 31033765-01 (Nov. 30, 1999).

$250 for providing wrong medication

On August 8, 1997, Michael Clarke reported to the WSP pill line to obtain medication for his broken tooth. Nurse Dufner gave Mr. Clarke two small pills and some white cream to apply directly on the injured tooth. Immediately following application of the creamy substance, Mr. Clarke became violently ill and began vomiting. He subsequently discovered that Dufner had mistakenly given him foot fungus medication, rather than the medication intended for his tooth. Mr. Clarke filed a tort claim with the Division of Risk Management, which was settled for $250. Mr. Clarke was not represented by counsel. See: Matter of Clarke , Tort Claim No. 31030376-01 (Jan. 20, 1998).

$200 for providing wrong medication

On October 19, 1999, James Rollins reported to the WCC pill line to obtain his daily medication. Approximately 20 minutes after receiving a pill from Nurse Norris, Mr. Rollins fell unconscious to the floor. WCC medical staff later determined that Ms. Norris had given him the wrong medication.

Mr. Rollins filed a tort claim with the Division of Risk Management, which was settled for $200. Mr. Rollins was not represented by counsel. See: Matter of Rollins , Tort Claim No. 31050581 (April 19, 2000).

Inadequate dental care results in settlement

In 1994, William Smith sued the dental department at the WSP for failing to provide annual check-ups and routine teeth cleanings. The DOC settled the case by agreeing to provide Mr. Smith with the services he complained were absent from the WSP dental department and to cover his court costs ($50). Mr. Smith was not represented by counsel. See: Smith v. Biagi , No. CS-94-270-JLQ (U.S.D.C. E.D. Wash., June 23, 1995).

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