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Georgia Pays More Than $3 Million to Settle Prison Medical Negligence Suits

by Kevin W. Bliss

The state of Georgia paid over $3 million in 2018 to settle lawsuits involving two former doctors hired by Augusta University’s Georgia Correctional HealthCare (GCHC) to work in state prisons. Dr. Yvon Nazaire and Dr. Chiquita Fye were named in five suits alleging negligence and deliberate indifference in cases that resulted in a brain injury, loss of a limb and a prisoner’s death. 

Critics contend that while the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) may no longer employ either physician, it has done little to address other factors that contribute to poor medical care in the state’s prison system.

Nazaire lost his license to practice medicine in New York after four malpractice claims were filed against him. GCHC was aware of this yet still hired him to work at the Pulaski State Prison as a medical director. [See: PLN, Sept. 2018, p.38; Dec. 2017, p.18]. He remained there for nine years before being fired, and during that period was sued for negligent care in three cases that resulted in almost $2.5 million in damages.

The surviving children of Georgia prisoner Bonnie Rocheleau filed suit against GDC and GCHC for her wrongful death, and accepted a $925,000 settlement in March 2018.

Represented by attorney Lance D. Laurie, Rocheleau’s eldest daughter and estate administrator Amber Lamontagne, along with Bazlyn Lewis and Stevie McGilvray, alleged that Dr. Nazaire provided substandard medical treatment that directly resulted in Rocheleau’s death. 

Rocheleau was nearing the end of a seven-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter at Pulaski State Prison when she went to the clinic on March 17, 2015 with complaints that she could not breathe. With a history of COPD, the nurse prescribed a nebulizer treatment and sent her back to her dorm. It wasn’t until after the third visit to the clinic that was she referred to a doctor.

When Dr. Nazaire examined Rocheleau, he sent her to Taylor Regional Hospital for chest X-rays. Once she returned, he had her lie down to draw some arterial blood gas. She immediately became cyanotic and by the time Nazaire had evaluated the X-rays and decided to admit her to a hospital, her condition had deteriorated to the point that she was completely nonresponsive and later died.

The lawsuit included an affidavit from a doctor who said every step of Rocheleau’s treatment was insufficient and negligent beginning with the nurse’s failure to notify Dr. Nazaire of Rocheleau’s condition considering her history of COPD to Nazaire’s initial failure to have Rocheleau immediately admitted to the hospital.

“Bonnie Rocheleau suffered needlessly because the Department of Corrections failed to provide basic medical care to her,” said Laurie. “The family of Bonnie Rocheleau decided to enter into a reasonable settlement so that they could put this tragic matter behind them and could obtain closure.”

Another prisoner who was treated by Nazaire, Mollianne Fischer, was left in a vegetative state after the doctor failed to prescribe a blood thinner, even though her history and medical condition indicated she should have been categorized as high risk for blood clots. Fischer developed a brain embolism. Her parents, who are now her permanent caretakers, were awarded $1.5 million in a June 2018 settlement. See: Fischer v. Georgia Dept. of Corr., U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 2:16-cv-00143-RWS.

And in a third case, the state agreed to pay $30,000 to former prisoner Kari Quinn, who suffered permanent vision loss in one eye due to inadequate care by Dr. Nazaire.

There are still a number of lawsuits pending against Nazaire that will increase the total amount Georgia will have to pay over the next several years. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Nazaire was responsible for the questionable care of at least nine women at the Pulaski State Prison and Emmanuel Women’s Facility that resulted in their “agonizing deaths.” He now resides in New Jersey where he is seeking a license to practice medicine in that state.

Fye was the medical director at Macon State Prison for 11 years before she resigned after the state paid $600,000 in two lawsuits that alleged negligent malpractice. One case involved the amputation of diabetic prisoner Michael Tarver’s leg, while the other concerned seizures experienced by William Stoner after Fye discontinued his anti-anxiety medication. [See: PLN, July 2018, p.52].

“I think that the care in the Georgia prison system has been shoddy for many, many years, but Nazaire and Fye reached a whole new level,” said Lance Lourie, the attorney who represented Rocheleau’s family.
The GDC contracts with GCHC for prison medical care. In turn, GCHC receives about 80 percent of the prison system’s legislative appropriation for their services. Dr. Timothy Young said GCHC paid their doctors only about $150,000 a year, which is $40,000 under the national average.

“The system is set up to attract the dregs, and that’s what it gets,” Young noted. 

At least five of the doctors working in Georgia’s prisons were hired despite having disciplinary actions against them for providing substandard care or other misconduct. According to a May 2018 news report, there is little oversight of healthcare in the state’s prison system, which also has insufficient medical staffing.

“There’s nobody overseeing what the GDC is doing in providing healthcare,” stated Mike Brown, an attorney who represented Tarver.

While GCHC is audited every three years by the Medical Association of Georgia, the audits are voluntary and there are no apparent consequences for adverse findings.

“As far as I know, they answer to no one,” Young observed. 

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