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$400,000 Settlement in Suit Over Minnesota Prisoner’s Death Due to Medical Neglect

$400,000 Settlement in Suit Over Minnesota Prisoner’s Death Due to Medical Neglect

by Matt Clarke

On May 1, 2013, the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) agreed to pay a $400,000 settlement in a federal lawsuit after a prisoner suffered multiple seizures and died, having received virtually no medical care.

Xavius Scullark-Johnson was a 27-year-old state prisoner held at MCF Rush City when he began to suffer severe seizures late at night on June 28, 2010. Johnson had a history of seizures resulting in hospitalization; he was about halfway through a 150-day sentence for violation of his supervised release on a charge of second-degree assault.

The nurses at MCF Rush City were DOC employees, but a private contractor, Corizon, provided physician services. As a money-saving measure, no Corizon doctors were present at the facility after 4 p.m. or on weekends. A physician assistant had determined that the level of Dilantin in Johnson’s blood was too high, reduced the dosage of the anti-seizure medication by half and ordered retesting in one to two weeks.

According to court records, Lt. Gene Olson and guards Christopher Rifley and Trent Gray watched Johnson suffer his first serious seizure around 10:20 p.m. on June 28. He was on the cell floor when they summoned Registered Nurse Linda L. Andrews, who noted Johnson was unresponsive and had urinated on himself. However, she took no vital signs, performed no medical tests and failed to contact a doctor. Andrews and the guards left Johnson lying on the floor in his urine.

As Johnson suffered additional seizures throughout the night, his cellmate summoned guards using a call button. The cellmate urged the guards to send for an ambulance because Johnson wasn’t fully responsive or breathing properly, but they refused. They also reportedly failed to inform the watch commander of the seizures.

Finally, at 3:10 a.m. on June 29, 2010, after Johnson suffered another seizure, was bleeding from the mouth because he had bitten his tongue, and had repeatedly urinated and defecated on himself, the guards summoned Olson, the watch commander. Olson’s response was to place the cellmate in segregation, leaving no one to observe or assist Johnson, and to contact the on-call physician. Dr. Sharyn Barney, a Corizon employee, told Olson to monitor Johnson and inform medical staff about his condition when they arrived on the morning shift.

According to the Star Tribune, “Under the department’s contract with Corizon, there [was] just one on-call doctor to serve the entire prison system across Minnesota,” who was “left to assess a prisoner’s case without the benefit of a written file because health service units are shut down overnight.”

At 5:23 a.m., Johnson was discovered unconscious on the floor of his cell and Olson approved an ambulance. The EMTs from the ambulance examined Johnson and found he was “slow to respond,” but arriving Registered Nurse Denise L. Garin sent the ambulance away, telling the EMTs that the prison would take over treatment. According to DOC medical staff, ambulance runs, which cost around $3,000, were closely monitored to reduce expenses.

Johnson was left alone in his cell where he suffered yet another seizure and became unresponsive with no pulse. An ambulance was again summoned and this time allowed to transport Johnson to a hospital, where attempts to save his life were unsuccessful. A toxicology test indicated the Dilantin level in his blood was below therapeutic amounts.

Aided by Minneapolis attorney Jordan S. Kushner, Johnson’s family filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court alleging that DOC and Corizon employees had denied Johnson medical care in violation of his constitutional rights. The state defendants settled for $400,000, while the claims against Corizon settled separately under undisclosed terms. See: Scullark v. Garin, U.S.D.C. (D. MN), Case No. 0:12-cv-01505-RHK-FLN.

Since 2000, at least six prison nurses have been disciplined for countermanding doctors’ orders, giving false statements or denying emergency care. For example, the Minnesota Board of Nursing found that a Corizon nurse, Thaloyce Minkens-Strader, denied or delayed medical care to prisoners eight times between 2007 and 2011. She refused to respond to one medical emergency because she was on her dinner break, and on another occasion refused to provide care because she was near the end of her shift and didn’t want to work late. She was suspended for eight days and eventually surrendered her license and retired in 2012.

“[Corizon] wants to provide care in the least expensive ways possible,” said Dr. Marc Stern, an expert for an Idaho federal district court who reviewed Corizon’s performance in that state. “That company is not going to volunteer to give things it can’t afford just to help out. So, first and foremost, this issue falls on the shoulders of the public officials. In Minnesota, I would ask, ‘Do they hold the vendor’s feet to the fire?’”

Eventually, yes. Minnesota ended its $28 million annual contract with Corizon in October 2013 – but only after nine prisoners had died as a result of inadequate medical care. The DOC’s current healthcare provider is Centurion, another for-profit contractor.


Additional source: Star Tribune


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Related legal case

Scullark v. Garin