Wash. to pay $3.75M for death of man whose cancer went untreated in prison

The settlement comes less than a year after WADOC agreed to pay $3.25M, and admitted negligence, in the death of another inmate due to improper medical care


By Jim Brunner
The Seattle Times
        
SEATTLE — Washington state will pay $3.75 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the family of a man who died at Monroe Correctional Complex after his cancer went untreated despite repeated pleas.

Kenny Williams, 63, died in June 2019 of breast cancer that had spread to his bones. If he'd received chemotherapy, as recommended by an oncologist, he'd likely have lived to his release date last fall, according to the lawsuit.

Instead, as documented in a scathing November 2019 prison watchdog report, efforts by Williams and his family to obtain treatment were frustrated by a confused and at times coldly indifferent DOC bureaucracy, delaying proper care until it was too late.

Kenny Williams died at Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington, after an excruciating battle with untreated cancer.
Kenny Williams died at Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington, after an excruciating battle with untreated cancer. (Mike Siegel/Seattle Times/TNS)

In agreeing to the settlement, finalized last week, the DOC admitted its medical care failures "more likely than not" caused Williams' suffering and death.

"The DOC failed. It has repeatedly failed. It has paid millions to settle cases that could have been avoided with competent and decent care, and it should take this case as an opportunity to look deep within itself and consider what it needs to do to avoid further travesties like this," said Ed Budge, an attorney with the Seattle law firm Budge & Heipt, which filed the lawsuit last April on behalf of Williams' estate.

The settlement money will benefit Williams' widow, Dee Williams, and their four children.

Jacque Coe, a DOC spokesperson, said in an email the agency would have no comment on the settlement.

The DOC previously has pointed to systemwide health care policy and training changes aimed at improving medical care at state prisons since Williams' death.

The new settlement is the latest in a series of investigations, lawsuits and payouts caused by poor medical care in state prisons.

Admitting negligence, the DOC last year paid $3.25 million to the family of a man who died in 2019 of a festering abdominal wound that was not properly treated at the Monroe prison. In 2020, the state paid a $400,000 settlement in the death of a man whose cancer went untreated at the same prison, despite filing written grievances seeking attention.

The medical director at the Monroe prison, Julia Barnett, was fired for misconduct in 2019 after a DOC investigation found she'd provided or supervised inadequate care for incarcerated people, including at least three who died. Her medical license has been indefinitely suspended by state regulators.

A bearded, burly man, Williams was a talented musician who wrote songs, sang and played a Fender Stratocaster guitar in bands, including the Crazy Texas Gypsies.

Williams went to prison after pleading guilty in 2016 to two counts of second-degree assault for shooting a man after a night of drinking in Kent.

In May of 2018, a nurse discovered a lump in Williams' left breast. But no follow-up examination was scheduled, even though Williams had a family history of breast cancer.

Within a few months, he was describing stabbing pain and a DOC medical staffer urgently recommended scans, according to the lawsuit. Nothing happened for a month.

The department waited nearly six months to arrange for Williams to be seen by an oncologist, according to the lawsuit and the 2019 report by the Office of the Corrections Ombuds, which investigates complaints by incarcerated people and their families. The oncologist said in August 2018 that Williams need to start chemotherapy immediately.

But he never received treatment, and prison officials sloughed off his written appeals for help. "I am dying. What is holding up the treatment that will save my life?" he wrote in one. A DOC grievance counselor responded by telling Williams his appeal was not properly signed and dated.

By November 2018, it was too late. The cancer had spread throughout Williams' body and metastasized to his bones. Wracked by pain, he signed a form seeking only palliative care. He died June 12, 2019.

A breast cancer expert's report commissioned by Williams' lawyers said the pain and suffering from breast cancer "is among the most severe of any disease" and that it could have been avoided.

"With appropriate care, Mr. Williams' life would have been prolonged for some years, and it is very likely that he might have returned to the life expectancy he would have had if the cancer had never occurred," the report stated.

In part due to the ombuds probe, the basic facts in the case were never under dispute, and it could have been settled long ago, said attorney Hank Balson, who co-represented the Williams' estate.

"For me one of the most frustrating parts of this case was DOC's intransigence and its refusal to take action earlier on," Balson said. "Instead, it chose to put the family through 10 months of litigation."
     
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