Wash. state to pay $3.25M, admits medical negligence in prison death
The prison's medical director lacked board certification and had never completed an approved residency
By Jim Brunner
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — The state Department of Corrections, admitting negligent medical care killed an incarcerated man at Monroe Correctional Complex, will pay $3.25 million to his family to settle a lawsuit.
John Kleutsch, 57, died of a festering abdominal wound that DOC staff failed to properly treat, while offering him only Tylenol for the excruciating pain, according to the lawsuit filed last year by his widow, Julia Kleutsch.
The settlement, filed Tuesday in King County Superior Court, is the latest fallout from the tenure of Dr. Julia Barnett, the former medical director at the Monroe prison, who was hired for that job by DOC leaders despite lacking some qualifications.
She was fired in April 2019 after an internal DOC investigation found medical care she provided and supervised contributed to suffering and deaths of several men at the prison, including Kleutsch.
Kleutsch had been recovering from outpatient cancer surgery when he was sent to Monroe's infirmary for recovery. He had an abdominal incision that was not healing properly, but Barnett and others failed to properly treat him, according to the lawsuit and the DOC investigation.
The wound grew puffy, oozing and tender, and Kleutsch pleaded with Monroe Correctional staff for help, reporting excruciating pain on 26 days before his death, according to the lawsuit, citing his medical records.
He was offered only over-the- counter Tylenol for the pain.
At one point a nurse was worried that fluids were building up in Kleutsch's abdomen and asked Barnett to transfer him to a hospital. She refused.
A top DOC medical official who reviewed Kleutsch's medical records later slammed his treatment, telling an investigator she saw "multiple days of abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, no exams, no written notes, and no plan of care."
After Kleutsch's condition worsened further, he was eventually deemed unable to eat food orally. But medical staff forgot for more than a day to give him intravenous fluids. He grew dehydrated and his skin clammy, and was finally sent to a hospital emergency room.
By then it was too late. Kleutsch died on Aug. 28, 2018, of septic shock, acute pancreatitis and a perforated intestine — conditions never diagnosed at the prison, according to the lawsuit.
In a statement, Julia Kleutsch said she brought the lawsuit to hold DOC accountable for her husband's death.
"John was treated inhumanely and suffered terribly before he died," she said. "The Department told me nothing about Dr. Barnett failing to provide basic medical care to John or that it caused his death. No family member of an inmate should be kept in the dark the way the Department kept me in the dark about John."
Marta O'Brien, a Seattle attorney representing Julia Kleutsch, in an interview Tuesday called the case "one of the worst medical malpractice cases I have encountered" and added it showed "a systemic failure" by the DOC.
Barnett, in a statement provided through an attorney, expressed sympathy, while pointing a finger at DOC administrators.
The statement read: "My heart goes out to Mrs. Kleutsch for her loss, and I too am saddened by the death of a patient I knew well. In my opinion, she sued the correct party. By its actions in replacing me with 3 physicians, DOC has acknowledged the unacceptable level of risk it placed solely on my shoulders. Systemically, the DOC chose to have too few providers, despite my and the inmates' begging for more. I am happy to see Mrs. Kleutsch obtain justice."
In internal messages last year, some top DOC medical officials described the care some inmates at the prison received under Barnett's management as "shocking" and "negligence."
Barnett's medical license has been indefinitely suspended by the Washington Medical Commission as the result of a complaint brought by DOC officials.
Barnett had been hired as medical director at the Monroe prison in 2017 even though she lacked some stated qualifications for the job: completion of an approved residency and board certification. She was being paid $260,000 a year at the time of her firing.
In a statement Tuesday, newly appointed DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange sounded an apologetic note.
"Our deepest sympathies go out to the Kleutsch family for the pain they suffer over the loss of a loved one," Strange said. "We know a settlement can never truly compensate for the pain of losing a family member and hope this resolution will bring some solace in the years to come."
In a March 18 court filing, before a trial was set to begin, lawyers for the state formally admitted the medical care provided to Kleutsch by DOC employees was negligent and "was a proximate cause of injury to, and the death of, John Kleutsch ..."
Kleutsch was serving a sentence for child molestation.
O'Brien said DOC had little choice but to acknowledge fault. "This one was so abhorrent. They were faced with a mountain of evidence and shocking facts that were going to come in about Dr. Barnett," she said.
In recent years, Washington's prison system has faced withering criticism for breakdowns in medical care at prisons across the state.
The Office of Corrections Ombuds, a watchdog office that reports to Gov. Jay Inslee, has issued multiple investigative reports detailing lapses in medical care at DOC, including deadly delays in cancer treatment that have led to deaths.
In late April, the family of Kenny Williams, who died in 2019 after DOC staff at the Monroe prison failed to treat his cancer, filed a lawsuit seeking $10 million in damages.
As a result of some of the publicized problems, DOC officials say they have reformed internal medical practices, and have sought to beef up nursing and other staff. The 2021-23 budget approved by the Legislature provided DOC with an increase of 161 full-time staff and $39 million to improve health care delivery.
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