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$950,000 Settlement for California Prisoner Rendered Quadriplegic

In February 2008, the California Department of Corrections (DOC) settled a lawsuit by a prisoner who had been allegedly rendered quadriplegic by medical mistreatment after he was knocked unconscious in a fight.

According to the complaint, Kenneth Holcomb, a DOC prisoner, was attacked by other prisoners, severely injured and rendered unconscious. Guards A. Alexander, K. Greeson and Lt. D. Holt responded to the fight. Alexander handcuffed the unconscious Holcomb, then the three guards grabbed Holcomb and tried to force him to stand up. When other prisoners complained, pointing out that they could be exacerbating his injuries, Holt let go of Holcomb, causing his head to violently jerk and bounce off his chest. The other guards then dropped Holcomb onto the floor and called for medical support. Holt cursed the prisoners who had criticized him for the next ten minutes.

A Medical Technical Assistant (MTA) arrived at the fight scene. The MTA, Holt, Alexander and Greeson placed Holcomb on a gurney without the use of a back brace or head restraint. He was taken to the yard clinic where the MTA examined the still unconscious Holcomb and called Registered Nurse Lynda Houghtalin, requesting medical transport to the Central Treatment Center. Houghtalin refused to come transport Holcomb, claiming that there was blood in the Emergency Transport Vehicle (ETV) that had to be cleaned out. There were other means of transporting Holcomb, but none were used.

Two hours after the fight, after multiple calls from the MTA requesting transport, Houghtalin arrived at the yard clinic with the ETV. However, she was told not to transport Holcomb until M.D. David Stuart Clark examined him. Later, Clark told her that he wanted to continue to observe Holcomb before approving transportation to the CTC, so Houghtalin left the yard clinic without Holcomb.

Clark briefly examined Holcomb, who had regained consciousness and was complaining of excruciating neck and back pain, difficulty breathing and inability to voluntarily move anything below the neck. Without any testing, Clark decided Holcomb was “faking” an injury and released him to his cell. Holcomb was taken to his cell in a wheelchair and “dumped” there. Unable to move, in severe pain and with no control over his bladder and bowls, Holcomb lay in his own excrement for more than a day.

After repeated complaints by prisoners and staff regarding Holcomb’s condition and medical treatment, M.D. Daniel Thor visited Holcomb’s cell. Without any further examination, Thor concurred with Clark’s diagnosis. After more complaints and another request by the MTA for transportation to the CTC, Holcomb was finally taken there the next day. During a videotaped examination by M.D. Issac Grillo, obvious signs of paralysis were ignored. Instead, Grillo lifted Holocomb’s hand so that it hit him in the head when Grillo dropped it, hit him in the head and poked him hard with various medical instruments, and injected him with a saline solution which he told Holcomb was “strong medicine” that would cure him. Grillo also diagnosed that Holcomb was “faking” an injury.

Holcomb continued to plead for help and state that he wasn’t faking it. Security staff finally relented and ordered medical staff to transport Holcomb to Salinas Valley Hospital. At the hospital, Holcomb was diagnosed with C4-5 quadriplegia due to a fracture dislocation. Emergency surgery revealed a ruptured C4-5 disk, C4-5 jump facet and acute quadriplegia due to subluxation. Holcomb remains quadriplegic with no chance of recovery.

Holcomb filed a civil right suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal district court, with pendent state claims, claim-ing that the delay in medical treatment and medical maltreament caused or worsened his quadriplegia and that some aspects of Gillo’s medical examination amounted to assault and battery.

Following a state medical board investigation, an administrative judge stripped Gillo of his medical license in October 2004. The investigation included a medical skills test that revealed Gillo “lacked the knowledge, training and judgment to avoid making potentially serious errors,” had an “uncritical and thoughtless approach” in managing test cases and scored in the lowest 10 to 20 percent on medical ethics and communications tests. As a result of medical board disciplinary action, Clark surrendered his medical license in 2003, and Thor was placed on probation by the medical board.

The settlement includes all past and future medical expenses, legal costs and fees and attorney fees. It also provides that Holcomb will be allowed to purchase for use in his cell a 32” flat panel color TV, a digital AM/FM radio and a special remote control to operate them. Holcomb was represented by PLN Advertiser Pismo Beach attorney William L. Schmidt and La Mesa attorney Suzy C. Moore.

Unfortunately, Holcomb’s case is not the exception to the rule. The DOC “has been a refuge for doctors who have been unable to provide care in other places,” according to San Quentin Prison Law Office staff attorney Alison Hardy. “As a result there have been a lot of prisoners who have been harmed.” See: Holcomb v. Terhune, U.S.D.C.-N.D. Cal., Case No. C03-02765-RMW.

Additional Sources: Valley Adviser,

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Related legal case

Holcomb v. Terhune

Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case.