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ACH Settles After Federal Jury Awards $8.5 Million in Suit Over Missouri Detainee’s Death

by Benjamin Tschirhart

In August 2022, private jail medical provider Advanced Correctional Healthcare (ACH) settled with the estate of a Missouri pretrial detainee who died of lung cancer after being refused medical attention for months. The agreement, which was for an undisclosed sum, came a few months after a jury ordered the company to pay $8.5 million in the case.

Beginning about two months after he was booked into Missouri’s Phelps County Jail on October 4, 2019, Bilal Hasanie Hill complained of illness and pain. When ACH staffers finally saw him in January 2020, they decided he had a pulled muscle and prescribed Tylenol. But by the end of that month, he also reported that his voice was changing and a lump in his neck was giving him difficulty swallowing. That earned him extra Tylenol, along with prednisone.

Hill, who was awaiting trial on federal drug and gun charges, continued to fill out sick-call requests in February 2020. By mid-month, his weight had dropped from almost 197 pounds to about 190. Less than a week later, it had fallen another ten pounds. His lab work looked normal, but his blood sample was not timely delivered, rendering the results suspect.

He asked to see an outside physician, but those requests were ignored — even though notes by medical staff reported his lymph node had swollen “to the size of a peanut” and he had developed a “baseball-sized mass on his shoulder.” After he filed another grievance, a guard lieutenant contacted ACH about Hill’s access to health care. The response from ACH employee Jennifer Nolawski was to suggest “‘a review of Mr. Hill’s medical records by a Doctor Review Board at ACH.’”

Unsurprisingly, that review determined Hill received “‘objectively reasonable care based on the complaints given.’”

On March 17, 2020, a guard found Hill lying unconscious on his cell floor. His weight had dropped another five pounds. A nurse clocked his heart rate at 112 beats per minute, and he was breathing rapidly. He was placed on medical watch, still complaining of shoulder and back pain. Finally on April 3, 2020, months after his initial complaints, his sister prevailed upon jailers to take Hill to a hospital. After a biopsy, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Though at one time treatable, his disease was now terminal. His prognosis? Just a few months left to live.

Hill was granted compassionate release. With his son, he went to live with his sister, Lady Maakia Charlene Smith, at her home in North Carolina. There he died of cancer at age 43 on January 14, 2021.

By then he had filed suit in the Court against Phelps County Sheriff Richard Lisenbe and his department and jail staff, as well as ACH and Dr. Arthur Bentley, Dr. Travis Schamber, and nurse Dionne Kelley. He accused them under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 of deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs, in violation of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

After his death, Smith was substituted as Plaintiff in the suit, represented by attorneys Brandon Gutshall, Charles Eblen, and Lindsey Heinz of Shook Hardy LLP in Kansas City. The Court then awarded her $12,150.00 in fees and $2,187.50 for deposition costs on August 16, 2021. Evidence showed deletions from Hills’ records before ACH sent them to its review board, but the Court declined to sanction the firm for discovery abuse, saying the request was supported by too many inferences. See: Smith v. Phelps Cty. Sheriff’s Dep’t, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 153719 (E.D. Mo.); and 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 153721 (E.D. Mo.).

On February 10, 2022, the Court granted summary judgment to the county defendants and Dr. Schamber but not to Dr. Bentley or nurse Kelley. See: Smith v. Lisenbe, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 24071 (E.D. Mo.).

On March 24, 2022, after a six-day trial, a jury found for Plaintiff and awarded her $8.5 million. Defendants asked to alter the judgment and hold a new trial. Plaintiff asked for additional attorneys fees and costs. She also filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on August 5, 2022. The parties then reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount and filed a joint motion to vacate the verdict and judgment, which the district court granted on August 26, 2022. See: Smith v. Lisenbe, USDC (E.D. Mo.), Case No. 4:20-cv-00804.

ACH is the country’s largest private provider of jail healthcare, with contracts in 320 jails in 18 states. But that size makes it easy to take a prisoner’s complaint and “sweep it under the rug,” Smith said.

 “The facts in this case are egregious,” Gutshall agreed, noting Hill “was crying and begging for help” with pain “so bad he couldn’t even get out of bed.”

“He was just ignored,” the attorney concluded. 

Additional source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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