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Corizon Bankruptcy Threatens $6.4 Million Award to Family of Michigan Prisoner Whose Five-Day Jail Term Turned Into Death Sentence

by Jacob Barrett

On December 5, 2022, a jury in federal court for the Western District of Michigan awarded $6.4 million to the estate of Wade Jones, 40, who was left to die from untreated alcohol withdrawal in his cell at Michigan’s Kent County Correctional Facility (KCCF) by guards and staff with Corizon Health, Inc., the jail’s privately contracted healthcare provider. However, the award has been jeopardized by the pending bankruptcy of Corizon Health’s corporate descendant. [See: PLN, Mar. 2023, p.56.]

Jones was detained and given a misdemeanor citation for shoplifting and retail fraud after stealing several bottles of liquor on April 13, 2018. He appeared for his arraignment 15 days later, and the trial judge directed Jones to speak with probation officer Deven Bonham prior to sentencing. He then consented to a portable breath test (PBT) which registered his Blood Alcohol Content at 0.159 the first time and 0.145 ten minutes later – well in excess of the 0.08 limit. Jones admitted he had “a couple drinks” before the hearing. Bonham informed the court that she was shocked at Jones’ PBT because he seemed functional. The trial judge also noted Jones had a “developed tolerance.” The court subsequently sentenced Jones to five days in jail.

Jones was booked into KCCF, where staff noted he was visibly intoxicated. He began experiencing acute alcohol withdrawal within hours. A day later Jones’ conditioned worsened and he was having hallucinations, “picking and banging” on his cell door to “escape,” and exhibiting delirium tremens. Following an exam, a nurse noted in Jones’s file that he had stopped taking fluids and was stripping off his clothing and putting it back on. Yet despite these hallmarks of severe alcohol withdrawal, medical and jail staff took no action to treat Jones for more than 36 hours after he was booked.

Evidence in the case revealed Corizon Health had a $5,500,000 annual contract with KCCF. The contract required the firm to provide adequate medical staffing, but it was understaffed and did not fill many positions at the jail. With that in the background, Deputy Donald Plugge weighed the cost of calling a nurse or additional medical staff and determined it was better to have Jones “ride it out” than receive treatment. Plugge wrote in Jones’s file: “LEAVE IN CURRENT LOCATION  UNTIL WD’S [withdrawal symptoms] IMPROVE.”

Of course, Jones never improved.

Jones was transferred to KCCF’s Medical Isolation Unit (MIU) on April 27, 2018, where he was placed on observation and given oxygen. Less than two hours later he was found unresponsive in his cell. The oxygen tank was “either empty or defective,” according to the complaint later filed on his behalf. Nurse Chad Richard Gotterman used an automated external defibrillator (AED) in an attempt to revive Jones, but he was unable to complete the procedure because the device had a low battery. Jones was transported to a hospital emergency room, where he was placed on life support until he was pronounced brain-dead on May 2, 2018.

Charles Jones was appointed representative of his son’s estate and filed suit in the Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing jail and medical staff of deliberate indifference to Jones’ serious medical need, in violation of his Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

Corizon Health moved to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim, arguing that state-law claims of medical malpractice and ordinary and gross negligence were barred by Mich. Comp. Laws § 600.2955a, which allows an absolute defense in an action where death was the result of “impaired ability to function” due to alcohol intoxication.

The Court rejected that argument. It distinguished Jones’ case from Harbour v. Corr. Med. Servs. Inc., 266 Mich. App. 452 (2005), in which the decedent was found partially liable for his death because “his alcohol related impairment caused the acute withdrawal that was the ‘most immediate, efficient, and direct cause’ of his death.”

Evidence at Jones’ sentencing, on the other hand, demonstrated he “was able to function at a fairly high level even with an elevated blood alcohol content.” Thus, contrary to Corizon Health’s argument, Jones did not have an “impaired ability to function.”

The Court also rejected the argument that Jones was 50% or more the “cause” of his own death. While he was responsible for the “event” – that is, “alcohol withdrawal resulting from his own chronic alcohol abuse that precipitated his death” – that’s not what matters under state law, the Court said.  “Mich, Comp. Laws §600.2925a speaks in terms of ‘the cause,’ not ‘the proximate cause,’ and the Michigan Supreme Court indicated that such interpretation is error,” the Court wrote, citing Beebe v. Hartman, 290 Mich. App 512 (2010).

So Jones’ ordinary negligence claims were allowed to proceed. But his gross negligence claims were dismissed “because Michigan law does not recognize an independent cause of action for gross negligence,” the Court said, citing Johnson v. Williams, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156149 (E.D. Mich.).

The Court further granted Corizon Health’s motion to dismiss Jones’ deliberate indifference claim, finding that while the actions of nurse Terri Byrne might have amounted to negligence, Plaintiff “fail[ed] to show that Defendant Byrne was subjectively aware that Jones was intoxicated and at risk of Jones’s condition.”

Finally, the Court rejected Corizon Health’s arguments that Jones’s claim should be dismissed for failure to show the firm was liable for its employees’ actions, as laid out in Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). “Plaintiff,” the Court wrote, “has sufficiently identified the alleged Corizon policies and connected them to Jones’s constitutional injury.”

The parties then proceeded to trial on the remaining claims, after which the jury entered its verdict. In an amended judgment entered on January 4, 2023, the Court specified that $3 million of the award was for Wade Jones’ pain and suffering, while $400,000 was for his heirs’ loss of his society to date and the remaining $3 million for the future loss of his society. Charles Jones was represented by attorneys Jennifer G. Damico and Sarah L. Gorski with the Buckfire Law Firm in Southfield.

Corizon Health took its contracts with jails and prison systems to create a new firm, YesCare, in 2022. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.22.] Its liabilities were spun off into another new firm, Tehum Care Services, Inc. – which promptly filed for bankruptcy protection. See: In Re: Tehum Care Services, Inc., USDC (S.D. Tex.), Case No. 23-90086. The firm then successfully moved the Western District of Michigan to stay proceedings for 90 days in Jones’ case on March 6, 2023, giving its bankruptcy case time to see whether the jury award might be included in it. PLN will continue to update developments as they are available. See: Jones v. Corizon Health, Inc., USDC (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:20-cv-00036.

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