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$1.05 Million Settlement for Oklahoma Prisoner’s Death from Untreated Appendix Rupture

by David M. Reutter

On May 23, 2023, the Oklahoma Legislature approved a $1.05 million settlement to resolve a lawsuit stemming from the preventable death of a state prisoner. The settlement followed an order by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma on May 29, 2022, that denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Estate of Joshua England, 21, who died from an untreated appendix rupture on May 29, 2018.

The lawsuit named six defendants employed at Joseph Harp Correctional Center, accusing them of deliberate indifference to England’s serious medical condition over a seven-day period. In addition to that Eighth Amendment claim, the complaint alleged separate state-law claims for medical malpractice, intentional infliction of emotional distress, three theories of negligence and wrongful death.

The facts reflect a common recurrence in prison healthcare. The eight days of suffering England endured began on May 22, 2018. The Request for Health Services he filed that day stated, “I’ve been puking all night and I’m now puking what looks like blood and my stomach hurts so so bad.” He had lost six pounds over a few days. LPN Laura Hays noted England was holding, or “guarding,” his abdomen, a classic sign of appendicitis. However, she did not conduct an abdominal exam and sent England away with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. She told him to come back in three days if his pain did not improve.

His pain only worsened. The next day, he submitted a sick call request complaining that the pain in his stomach was so bad he could barely breathe and could not eat or sleep. He was seen by Hays and Physician’s Assistant Wendell Miles. England described his pain as a level 10, and he had a heart rate of 102 beats per minute, well above normal for men his age. He also reported blood in his stool. Despite those symptoms, Hays and Miles failed to conduct an abdominal exam. They gave him magnesium citrate, a laxative, and sent him back to his cell.

In a third sick call request, England stated that “my stomach hurts so bad … It’s hard to breathe and sleep …” But Hays refused to see him. After a similarly worded request on May 26, 2018, England was seen by Miles and LPN Laura Noble. Once again, though, no abdominal exam was conducted. Dr. Robert Balogh was notified via phone of England’s condition. He ordered Ibuprofen and directed England to drink plenty of fluids and to eat fibrous food.

After England returned to his cell, he continued to suffer. He was seen lying on his cell floor and crying. He wasn’t eating, showering, or going to his prison job. He submitted a fifth sick call request on May 29, 2018, stating, “I’m short of breath my stomach hurts.” He had lost 12 pounds in two weeks. Prisoners at the clinic saw him “hyper-ventilating, doubled-over because of pain (or curled in a fetal position), rocking back and forth, and crying,” according to the complaint later filed on his behalf.

Hays noted that England appeared “distraught” and was “sweating profusely,” and his heart rate was 158 beats per minute. But rather than being granted emergency transport to a hospital, England was told he must wait for a provider in the prison clinic. Unable to bear the pain, England returned to his cell.

Later that day, Hays and other prison employees went to England’s cell and recorded a video of his dying moments, “ostensibly to document his ‘refusal’ of medical care,” the complaint noted. Despite England’s obvious distress and delirium – and that he could not walk to the clinic – no wheelchair or stretcher was provided to transport him to the clinic. It was alleged that Hays “forced England to sign a waiver of medical treatment despite his extreme distress.” Just hours later, England, “after languishing in delirium and unimaginable pain, died alone on the floor of his prison cell” of a ruptured appendix with acute peritonitis.

The Court found the allegations were well pleaded and stated a claim for relief on all counts, refusing to grant Defendants’ motion to dismiss. See: Smith v. Allbaugh, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135040 (W.D. Okla.). The parties then proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, which included costs and fees for the estate’s attorneys from Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff, Abady, Ward & Maazel in New York City as well as Fredric Dorwart Lawyers in Tulsa. See: Smith v. Allbaugh, USDC (W.D. Okla.), Case No. 5:19-cv-00470.  

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Related legal case

Smith v. Allbaugh