Wash. inmate who had leg amputated sues county, medical provider

The man alleges he was seen by multiple medical and mental health providers who failed to notice his decomposing leg

By Jared Brown
The News Tribune

TACOMA, Wash. — A former Pierce County inmate alleges the jail and its medical provider missed the signs of a severe blood clot and should have provided treatment to prevent the amputation of his leg, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Seattle last week.

Attorneys for Javier Tapia, 40, who was released from prison this spring following drug and stolen vehicle convictions, first filed a lawsuit against Pierce County and Alabama-based medical provider NaphCare in King County Superior Court in March 2021, according to court records and his lawyer.

Tapia was booked into the Pierce County Jail in June 2018 after he was arrested on suspicion of driving a stolen vehicle, according to the lawsuit. Jail staff started to document the deterioration of his health in September when Tapia began having difficulty following orders such as curfew rules.

Over the next few weeks, Tapia alleges he was seen by multiple medical and mental health providers who failed to notice his decomposing leg or connect his newfound mental health issues to another condition, according to the lawsuit. Tapia entered the jail with no history of mental illness, but providers soon documented he became nonverbal and confused after his time in jail.

On Oct. 1, 2018, the jail sent Tapia to Tacoma General Hospital with a "swollen, black foot," and he communicated to a doctor that he hadn't been able to walk for weeks.

Medical providers quickly determined they had little hope of saving his leg and connected his mental health issues to his blood clot condition.

Tapia's lawsuit was transferred to the Western District of Washington on Aug. 15. Various law enforcement officials, including former Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, also are named as defendants.

"NaphCare denies the allegations asserted by Javier Tapia and is confident in the quality of care provided," the company's lawyers from Seattle-based Perkins Coie LLP wrote in a statement. "We will continue to vigorously defend our client in court."

NaphCare has faced multiple lawsuits in the past, including an undisclosed settlement outside of court with the family of a Bonney Lake man who died in the Pierce County Jail from an infection in 2015. A recent wrongful death case in Spokane County resulted in nearly $27 million in damages, according to The Spokesman-Review.

Tapia's lawsuit alleges the company has been named in as many as 250 cases in Alabama, Nevada, Virginia, Texas and Washington.

Pierce County first awarded NaphCare a four-month, multimillion-dollar contract for jail medical services in 2015 after its previous provider, ConMed, was also accused of substandard medical care. A jury sided with the county when ConMed sued for nonpayment.

Pierce County does not generally comment on pending litigation, according to a spokesperson.

Tapia's lawsuit lays out the following allegations:

On Sept. 17, a jail officer watched him get off his bunk, throw his hands in the air and flail around while rolling on the floor. When the officer went to help him up, Tapia started crying and mumbling unintelligibly. Responding deputies put him in a "timeout cell."

Tapia was cooperative the next day but confused and unable to verbally respond to questions. He soon began refusing meals. By this point, Tapia's blood clot in his groin was causing bleeding blisters on his foot and leg that also released a foul discharge.

Another day later, Tapia remained confused and nonverbal with a mental health provider. A jail officer wrote he was "way off his baseline" and didn't speak during a court hearing. The mental health provider referred him for a physical exam in case he had an unknown medical condition.

The nurse who examined Tapia that day noted he was not in distress or relating any medical concerns and did not describe any additional care provided.

Tapia remained nonverbal and confused for another several days. A doctor at the jail asked for staff to measure his vital signs for three days.

On Oct. 1, a nurse wrote Tapia didn't allow her to check his vital signs.

A jail officer reported Tapia's toes were turning black later that day. His left foot was also swollen and severely discolored. Officers noted he had lost about 20 pounds in two weeks.

Jail staff sent him to the hospital with suspected gangrene.

Hospital staff noted he appeared sickly and trembling. He couldn't move his toes and had been experiencing paralysis in his left leg for days.

A doctor wrote that treatment options for Tapia were severely diminished by the delay in his treatment. Some interventions that might have helped his condition within a day or two of symptoms now posed a significant risk.

Tapia was reluctant to agree to amputation but soon began experiencing reduced blood flow, tissue death and an infection.

Doctors amputated Tapia's leg below his knee.

A NaphCare medical director emailed the jail medical staff who had contact with Tapia the week after he submitted a claim for damages to Pierce County, according to the lawsuit. Records show the claim asked for $5 million.

"A few times per week, l am asked by our legal department to review a chart, in regards to the care provided by the staff. Usually it's a former patient seeking a claim for damages," the corporate medical director reportedly wrote. He continued to write that if they had not seen Tapia and promptly sent him to the hospital, "he may have died. So thanks to you, he's alive. He's mad about his below-the-knee amputation, but in my opinion you did everything right and he's lucky."

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that plaintiff Javier Tapia was released from prison this spring and that Pierce County law enforcement officials were not named as defendants in his initial King County lawsuit.

(c)2022 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) Visit The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) at www.TheNewsTribune.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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