A state prison inmate will be paid $130,000 by the Department of Corrections to settle a lawsuit accusing its medical staff of negligence and destruction of evidence in a 2012 incident that left him with permanent nerve damage.
Erick Thomas, 32, an inmate at Stillwater prison, was later diagnosed with Brown-Sequard syndrome, the result of extensive, prolonged compression of his spinal cord.
The settlement is the latest in a series of cases dating to 2011 in which the department has paid more than $827,000 to inmates and their families to settle claims of negligence and inadequate care. Attorneys who work in the field of inmates’ rights say the department’s contracts with for-profit medical providers have resulted in a rationed health care operation that resulted in critical medical mistakes. In February, Legislative Auditor James Nobles issued a report critical of the state’s prison health system, saying it lacks oversight and outside accountability.
Department officials would not comment specifically on Thomas’ case and defended the quality of prison medical care.
“Resolving litigation in this manner does not assume wrongdoing was found,” the department said in a statement issued Thursday.
‘Faker’ note in log destroyed
The lawsuit stems from an incident in which Thomas was found partly paralyzed in his cell one evening. The examining prison nurse left him propped up in the cell and then wrote the word “Faker” in her medical log. Records produced for the case showed that, after writing that entry, the nurse, Ellie Fuller, did not call a doctor before she went home for the night.
The next morning Thomas was found lying on his cell floor, unable to communicate, and was sent to a Twin Cities hospital for emergency surgery. After he had been sent off, the nursing supervisor, Sara Hard, read the note in Thomas’ medical file. She was so alarmed that she ordered another nurse, Cassie Rider, to destroy the document, not knowing that Rider had secretly made a photocopy. When Rider refused the order, Hard destroyed the note herself, Rider said in interviews and in an affidavit. “Hard ordered me to destroy the Checklist because, according to her, ‘We can’t write (expletive) like that on anything and Ellie knows better than that,’ ” Rider stated.
Fuller has retired and Hard has been demoted to senior nurse status, a department spokesperson said.
Thomas, who is serving a drug sentence in the prison, is expected to be transferred this fall to a minimum security facility that offers a “boot camp” program to teach inmates self-discipline and skills in preparation of their release. If he passes the requirements, he could be released on probation by next spring, cutting his prison time by three years, he said.
Today, Thomas is permanently numb on the right side of his body as a result of a blood clot that surgeons found pressing on his spine, which nearly killed him.
‘I’ve got a bigger plan’
In a recent interview, Thomas said that when released he hopes to start a home renovation business.
“There’s no reason for me to do anything else — I’m not looking back at that life I had,” he said. “It’s all good, and I’ve got a bigger plan.”
Thomas’ attorney, Steve Meshbesher of Minneapolis, said he plans to file suit against Corizon Inc., the for-profit health care company that was providing medical care at the time to more than 9,000 of the state’s prisoners. Meshbesher alleges that a doctor employed by Corizon who was on call the night Thomas suffered paralysis was negligent by not ordering that Thomas be examined by a hospital physician.
As outlined in the Corizon contract at the time, prison doctors throughout the state’s corrections system left at 4:30 p.m. and nurses were gone by 11:30 p.m., leaving only corrections officers to face the often daunting medical issues of inmates.
Last fall, Corizon’s bid to renew its contract was rejected by the state, and the company was replaced by Centurion Managed Care of St. Louis. Today, medical staffing levels generally remain the same under the two-year, $67.5 million contract.
Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745