by David M. Reutter
On February 17, 2022, the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) stipulated to a $3.75 million judgment in state court to settle all claims — including costs and attorney’s fees — made by the estate of a prisoner who died in 2019 from breast cancer. Though DOC’s stipulation disavowed liability, a state watchdog investigation concluded that if the dead man “had been treated promptly” rather than subjected to a six-month treatment delay, “his life expectancy would likely have been extended.”
The prisoner, guitarist and songwriter Kenny Williams, 63, ended a night of drinking in 2016 with a shooting that led to a conviction for second-degree assault. On March 4, 2018, shortly after he began a two-year sentence at Monroe Correctional Complex, nurse C. Klimper performed an assessment and found a lump under the skin above Williams’ left nipple. She reported it to a physician assistant, P. Ngo. But no action was taken to arrange further evaluation.
According to his complaint, Williams made a sick call about the lump on May 8, 2018. But again, no action was taken. Williams filed a grievance 19 days later, but it was returned to him as untimely despite being filed within the 20-day time limit.
On June 5, 2018, Williams saw another physician assistant about the “sharp, knife-like stabbing pain” in his left breast. That provider, R. Smith, recommended an “urgent” consult for a mammogram and ultrasound. Yet more than a month passed before those tests occurred. The results confirmed the mass, and the report noted that Williams’ mother had breast cancer at age 30. A biopsy was urgently recommended.
However, it was another three weeks before that happened. The biopsy resulted in a diagnosis of invasive ductal carcinoma. An emergency CT scan was requested, to be completed within two days, but it was ten days before that request was granted.
Then another two months passed before the scan occurred.
An oncologist then said it was likely Williams had metastatic breast cancer in his left breast and referred him to a surgeon and radiation oncologist to “start chemotherapy ASAP.” He also recommended port placement, a CT scan, a brain MRI, and a bone scan. But it was another two months before DOC completed the CT and bone scans, and it never arranged for port placement or chemotherapy.
Meanwhile the cancer metastasized. Williams endured persistent and worsening pain. He filed another grievance in early October 2018 concerning his medical care, which was again dismissed as untimely.
On October 16, 2018, a whole-body bone scan revealed “multifocal skeletal metastatic disease.” A CT scan that day revealed a cancerous mass in Williams’ chest, metastases in pulmonary nodules, and “innumerable lesions throughout his entire visualized skeleton.” The report recommended Williams be transported in the future via stretcher due to his severe pain.
After eight months of being denied treatment, Williams decided to refuse all but palliative care because he was in “too much pain to travel” for cancer treatment. He spent the last seven months of his life in a prison medical ward confined to a wheelchair or bed before he died on June 12, 2019.
Represented by attorneys Hank Balson and Edwin S. Budge of the Budge & Heipt Law Firm in Seattle, Williams’ estate sued DOC for its negligence in King County Superior Court on April 29, 2021. By that time, the Office of the Corrections Ombuds had completed its investigative report issued on November 15, 2019, finding that the “allegation of delayed treatment for the discovered lump was substantiated.” The report also faulted DOC staff for rejecting Williams’ grievances and noted that “none of the recipients took any action to indicate that the content of the communications was important.”
DOC responded to that report by saying the “primary provider” for Williams’ health care had resigned. DOC spokeswoman Janelle Guthrie added that “[f]ollowing an internal review of this tragic situation, [DOC] identified and is implementing significant process changes to address failures identified.”
“The DOC failed,” Budge agreed. “It has paid millions to settle cases that could have been avoided with competent and decent care, and it should take this case as an opportunity to look deep within itself and consider what it needs to do to avoid further travesties like this.” See: Johnson v. State of Washington, Wa. Super. (King Cty.), Case No. 21-2-05666-7.
Additional source: Seattle Times
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Related legal case
Johnson v. State of Washington, Wa. Super. (King Cty.)
|Cite||Case No. 21-2-05666-7|
|Level||State Supreme Court|