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Ohio DOC Not Liable in Prisoner’s MRSA Death

An Ohio claims court held that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) is not liable for a prisoner’s death in a wrongful death and medical negligence lawsuit. The court’s ruling was based upon community-acquired MRSA not being widely acknowledged in 2003, and prison staff providing the standard of care in existence at that time.

Sean Schwamberger, a prisoner incarcerated at Ohio’s Pickaway Correctional Institute (PCI), first reported a suspected spider bite to medical staff at about 9 PM on April 11, 2003. With no doctor on duty, the nurse called Dr. Yamour at home, explaining the prisoner’s condition. Dr. Yamour prescribed a ten-day course of penicillin called “Pen K” and ordered the wound cleaned and dressed twice daily. On April 12th, Schwamberger returned to medical, complaining of pain and increased swelling of the affected thigh. He was given a cane and low bunk restriction and advised to return on April 14th to sick call, which he failed to do.

On April 18th, Schwamberger returned to medical complaining of pain in his back and lower ribs. Dr. Yamour recommended Schwamberger be transported to the emergency room at the Ohio State University Medical Center (OSUMC), but Schwamberger refused. On April 19th, he returned to medical and was then transported to OSUMC. He was given a prescription for Motrin and returned to PCI. On April 20th, Schwamberger was taken back to OSUMC and admitted. On April 29th, Schwamberger died.

After his death, his estate filed a lawsuit claiming the spider bite was actually MRSA, an antibiotic resistant form of staph infection

At trial, Dr. Gary Richwald testified that ODRC employees did not meet the accepted standard of medical care in treating Schwamberger. Dr. Richwald criticized Dr. Yamour’s choice of antibiotic and failure to examine the wound. According to Dr. Richwald, “Pen K” had not been commonly used in over a decade and was outdated. Also, excessive swelling should serve as a “red flag,” indicating an infection. Therefore, Dr. Richwald opined that the MRSA began in the prisoner’s thigh and spread into his bloodstream. In the end, Dr. Richwald surmised, Schwamberger died of sepsis caused by an overwhelming MRSA infection.

However, Terrance Baker, MD, testified that ODRC staff met the standard of care in effect at that time. Dr. Baker noted that Schwamberger showed signs of improvement as early as April 15th, and he opined that Schwamberger died of pneumonia.

In finding in favor of the ODRC, the claims court found Dr. Baker’s pneumonia theory more persuasive than Dr. Richwald’s MRSA argument. In the alternative, the court said community-based MRSA was not recognized in 2003, and the care provided was proper at that time. See: Zemmelman v. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, Court of Claims Ohio, Case No. 2005-05680, 2008 Ohio 2445; 2008 Ohio Misc. LEXIS 59.

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Related legal case

Zemmelman v. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction