A Warren County Regional Jail inmate’s disabling stroke this year occurred due to negligence on the part of jail employees, a federal lawsuit alleges.
The now-former inmate, 49-year-old Christopher Prince, along with Betsabe Puga, the guardian of Prince’s son, brought the lawsuit this month in U.S. District Court against Warren County, Warren County Jailer Stephen Harmon, Southern Health Partners, several as-yet identified deputy jailers and three medical professionals employed by Southern Health Partners to attend to the medical needs of the jail’s inmates.
Southern Health Partners contracts with the jail to provide medical care to inmates.
The lawsuit said Prince was booked into the jail April 15 and made staff aware soon afterward that he took medications to reduce his blood pressure and lower the risk of stroke.
On the morning of April 19, Prince showed signs of dizziness and trouble speaking, but the lawsuit claims nearly two hours passed before a nurse was summoned to his cell.
Two licensed practical nurses named in the lawsuit, Shelly Weaver and Elysia Foley, reportedly observed Prince’s symptoms and transported him in a wheelchair to the jail’s medical clinic and called Barry Dority, an advanced practice registered nurse identified in the lawsuit as the “primary physician” for the jail’s inmates.
After hearing the LPN’s assessment of Prince’s symptoms, Dority recommended a battery of medications to reduce Prince’s blood pressure, the lawsuit said, but Prince’s condition deteriorated over the next 24 hours.
On the morning of April 20, Foley and Weaver were summoned again to Prince’s cell, where he complained of pain in his right side and an inability to straighten his right leg.
They called Dority, who recommended Prince be transported to a hospital, but his condition did not improve, according to the lawsuit.
“Mr. Prince now has serious difficulty speaking and communicating his thoughts,” the lawsuit said. “His right hand is all but useless. He is effectively totally disabled and his efforts to communicate are lengthy, halting, often ineffective and a source of extreme frustration.
State court records indicate Prince, who was booked on charges of first-degree strangulation and fourth-degree assault, was released from jail April 20 on an unsecured bond.
Attorney Greg Belzley, who filed the lawsuit, said this and other incidents at Kentucky jails in which inmates have died or suffered serious illness is an indication that counties are shirking their legal responsibility to care for the medical needs of inmates.
“What we see again and again throughout the state, without exception, is the county goes and hires a private for-profit medical provider and then just turns them loose and pays no attention whatsoever to how they’re doing their job,” said Belzley, who has sued multiple county jails, alleging they have committed negligence and deliberate indifference.
Attorney Aaron Smith, who is representing the county, Harmon and the unnamed deputies in this matter, said he received a copy of the lawsuit last week.
“We look forward to the truth coming out and intend to vigorously defend against the claims,” Smith said Friday. “Unfortunately, due to the pending litigation we cannot make any further comment at this time.”
In his lawsuit, Belzley refers to three prior suits against the Warren County Regional Jail related to the deaths or serious illnesses of inmates when the jail was directed by now-retired jailer Jackie Strode, claiming that they have the combined effect of showing that the county has “abdicated” its responsibilities to Southern Health Partners and “utterly failed and refused to exercise any meaningful supervision of SHP’s operations in the jail.”
Those three previous lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court, however, have been unsuccessful.
One case involving the 2009 in-custody death of Shannon Finn, an inmate who was exhibiting symptoms of alcohol withdrawal made it to trial, but a jury found no liability on the part of any jail staff or SHP employees.
Another lawsuit concerns the 2016 death of Edward Burke, an inmate who had been struggling to manage his Addison’s disease and diabetes during his three-month jail stint and developed a rash while in custody.
Court filings in the case indicate he was placed in 24-hour disciplinary segregation after he complained about the frequency of his insulin treatments, and he subsequently refused a daily Prednisone treatment for his Addison’s disease.
The day after refusing his medication, Burke became unresponsive and stopped breathing, and he was taken to The Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
The federal lawsuit in that case was dismissed after a judge found no deliberate indifference or deficient conduct on the part of SHP or jail staff, but a subsequent action was filed in Warren Circuit Court against SHP and a number of its employees, alleging violation of state laws.
The state lawsuit is pending.
Another lawsuit involves a federal inmate, John Wesley Newell, who suffered a pulmonary embolism in 2015 after reporting shortness of breath and coughing up blood.
The federal lawsuit accused SHP employees of deliberate indifference and negligence, featuring claims that Newell never saw anyone qualified to diagnose and treat his illness until he was brought to the emergency room in The Medical Center and that further delays would have led to his death.
That lawsuit was dismissed largely on the grounds that Newell did not exhaust the jail’s policy for filing grievances prior to suing, but the lawsuit is now in front of Warren Circuit Court on claims of state law violations.
“I can’t get a judge to order that I be made county judge-executive or jailer for the next six months to clean up their act, all I can do is ask a jury to award damages,” Belzley said. “The Warren County jail is not full of a bunch of federal prisoners who live in spots all over the nation and it’s not chock-full of immigrants, it’s full of residents of Warren County and those residents and their families pay taxes ... it’s virtually effortless to provide a sick inmate access to real medical care that could diagnose a potential threat to their life and again and again it doesn’t happen.”