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Washington DOC Settles Wrongful Death Suit for $245,000

Washington DOC Settles Wrongful Death Suit For $245,000

In February 2001, Washington prison officials agreed to settle a $2.9 million wrongful death suit for $245,000 in costs, damages, and attorneys' fees. The lawsuit was brought in state court by a prisoner's mother, Sharon Corner, after her son died as a result of prison medical staff's negligence.

Charles Snipes was a 32 year-old prisoner incarcerated at the Special Offender Center (SOC) near Monroe, Washington. He was serving six years for having helped an undercover police officer buy $20 worth of cocaine.

SOC is a diagnostic prison for mentally ill prisoners. Snipes was imprisoned there because he was schizophrenic. He was also HIV positive with a long history of heart problems.

Unnamed SOC guards claimed that Snipes was a troublesome prisoner. They claim that Snipes had attempted to throw his own urine and feces on them, which they somehow believed to have been an attempt to infect them with HIV, rather than the result of Snipes' schizophrenic delusions.

On July 22, 1998, one of the hottest days of that year, SOC's air-conditioning was out. Fans had been set up to blow over buckets of ice for temperature control.

At about 6:00 p.m. that day Snipes complained to SOC guard Karen McLellan that he could not breathe. McLellan reported the complaint to SOC nurse Gloria Wagner, who did not examine Snipes but recommended a cold shower for him.

At about 8:30 p.m. Wagner and another nurse, Mike Kalina, observed Snipes lying naked on his cell floor. Neither spoke to Snipes. Instead, both assumed he was asleep. Neither nurse recorded Snipes' complaints.

At about 10:30 p.m. James Smith, an SOC guard, asked nurse Leann Cave to check on Snipes. Smith was concerned because Snipes had not changed positions in about 90 minutes, and his feet appeared to be pale.

At about 1:00 a.m. on the 23rd, nursing staff finally arrived to examine Snipes. When they could not rouse him by yelling and banging on his cell door, they asked to go into the cell. A lieutenant identified only as Conner was called. Conner instructed them to await his arrival before going into Snipes' cell.

Disturbingly, while awaiting Conner's arrival, guards and nurses laughed while they sprayed Snipes with water, pelted him with paper wads shot from a rubber band, and threw rolled up wet socks at him, reported Sean Morin, an SOC prisoner.

Conner arrived at about 1:30 a.m., and nurses were allowed into Snipes' cell. He was promptly pronounced dead.

Although a team of investigators concluded that Snipes' medical treatment "left much to be desired," Wagner got off with only a written reprimand.

Kalina was not disciplined for the Snipes incident but was later sanctioned by a reduction in pay for administering a drug overdose to a prisoner.

David Smith, a Seattle attorney who represented DOC in the lawsuit, characterized spraying Snipes with water and pelting him with wet socks "a little unorthodox" but necessary. He further commented that "security concerns have to override saving an inmate's life. That's just the way it has to be." Smith claims that SOC employees did nothing wrong and only settled the suit to save the taxpayers money, and to save the defendants the discomfort of testifying at trial.

Frank Cuthbertson, the attorney who filed the lawsuit for Corner, could not "fathom why the unit's medical staff waited seven hours before trying to help the dying man."

Corner commented that her "life will never be the same," and that she felt as if "they got off easy" for the way SOC nurses and guards treated her son.

Corner was represented by attorneys Frank Cuthbertson and Thaddeaus Martin of Gordon, Thomas, Honeywell, Malanca, Peterson & Daheim, P.L.L.C. of Tacoma, Washington, with whom she will share the $245,000. See: Corner v. State Of Washington et al. , King County Superior Court No. 99-2-16561-6-SEA.

Snipes was not the first prisoner to die of medical neglect at the Monroe Corrections Complex, where SOC is located. In 1995 Stanley Watson died of a heart attack at the Washington State Reformatory, which is part of the Complex. Negligence on the part of medical staff at the Complex resulted in Watson's death, which could easily have been prevented with adequate medical care. See: PLN , Nov. 1995, page 12.

Sources: Seattle Post-Intelligencer ; Government Documents.

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Related legal case

Corner v. State of Washington et al