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Cook County to Pay Over $5 Million for Depriving Prisoners of Dental Care

by Douglas Ankney

In May 2018, commissioners in Cook County, Illinois agreed to establish a $5,263,000 fund to settle four lawsuits, including one certified as a class-action, alleging a complete denial of dental treatment for prisoners at the Cook County Jail (CCJ). The claims arose because, in a 2007 “cost-cutting measure,” the county eliminated all but one dentist at the jail to provide treatment to more than 6,000 prisoners.

Commissioner Larry J. Suffredin said the county’s explanation was that dental treatment was not considered part of required medical care at the time. 

“I think we now understand that dental is essential to healthcare,” he said. Because the Cook County Health and Hospital System now provides medical care at CCJ, the federal district court dissolved a consent decree entered in 2010 and released the CCJ from court oversight.

The § 1983 class-action complaint, filed in 2009, described prisoners repeatedly requesting dental treatment because they were experiencing severe tooth pain, bleeding gums and lost fillings. They were denied care for months, resulting in permanent damage, unnecessary and excessive pain, and inability to sleep. One plaintiff was required to have at least 14 teeth extracted after he was transferred to the Illinois Department of Corrections. 

The estate of John Smentek, the original named plaintiff in the case, received an incentive award of $25,000 from the settlement fund. Four additional plaintiffs named in the class-action suit each received $15,000, while class member Tom Tuduj received $3,000 for appearing at a deposition. The plaintiffs in the three other cases also received $15,000 each in incentive awards, to be paid from the fund.

After attorney’s fees and costs of $2,220,000 and an administrative payment of up to $300,000 were deducted, the fund had a balance of $2,880,000 to settle claims filed by the class members, who included: “All inmates housed at the Cook County Department of Corrections from January 1, 2007 to October 31, 2013 who made a written request for dental care because of acute pain and who suffered prolonged and unnecessary pain because of a lack of treatment.”

Final approval of the settlement was granted by the district court in August 2018. A total of 18,388 claims were filed by August 15, 2018. Because that was a higher number than expected, the average award to each class member was $100, with no class member receiving more than $3,000. Claims were to be paid on a “first in-first out” basis until either May 21, 2019 or the date the funds are exhausted, whichever comes first. 

The class was represented by Chicago attorneys Joel A. Flaxman, Kenneth N. Flaxman, Thomas G. Morrissey and Patrick W. Morrissey. See: Smentek v. Sheriff of Cook County, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:09-cv-00529. 

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Additional source: chicagotribune.com

Related legal case

Smentek v. Sheriff of Cook County