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Minnesota inmate settles with state over injury but plans to sue prison contract doctor

ST. PAUL -- A settlement from the Minnesota Department of Corrections won't be the end of the fight for Erick Fontain Thomas, who was left writhing on his prison cell floor for hours, resulting in permanent neurological damage. Thomas sued the DO...


ST. PAUL -- A settlement from the Minnesota Department of Corrections won’t be the end of the fight for Erick Fontain Thomas, who was left writhing on his prison cell floor for hours, resulting in permanent neurological damage.

Thomas sued the DOC last year, accusing a prison nurse and guard of ignoring his serious medical condition.

The DOC has agreed to pay Thomas $130,000 in exchange for dismissal of the claim against the department and its employees.


But there are others Thomas seeks to hold responsible.

“We’re releasing only the prison official and the nurse; we’re not releasing the medical facility (that the DOC) contracted with, which has since been discharged, or the doctor,” said Steve Meshbesher, Thomas’ attorney. “That doctor was on a phone call with the prison giving them instructions on what to do with this guy. And those instructions were completely inaccurate and inadequate.”

According to the suit, Thomas, who was an inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater in Bayport, began experiencing neck pain the evening of Feb. 1, 2012. Within hours, he lost sensation and was unable to move parts of his body.

Eleanor Fuller, a DOC-employed nurse, told Thomas he was having muscle spasms and gave him some ibuprofen, then left for the night, Thomas recalled. Fuller allegedly left a note in her shift report calling Thomas a “faker” and later admitted that she did not seek the advice of an on-call doctor regarding Thomas’ symptoms, the lawsuit said.

Thomas fell out of bed after the nurse left and was unable to get up. He claims he lay on the floor for more than an hour before officers responded to his yells.

“Lieutenant (Robert) Plumm told Mr. Thomas to ‘quit playing,’ and told Mr. Thomas he would be sent to the hole if he did not get up off the ground,” the lawsuit stated.

Plumm then reportedly called Dr. Leon Malachinski, the contracted on-call doctor for the night, who instructed staff to move Thomas to his bed, the lawsuit said.

Two officers eventually lifted Thomas into his bed, but when he fell again, while trying to reach the toilet in his cell, he was left there until the morning shift change, his lawsuit claimed.


When Thomas was found and examined the next morning, the new on-duty doctor ordered Thomas to be taken to the emergency room by ambulance. Thomas was found to have “a large C2-C5 epidural hematoma with compression and displacement of the spinal cord” and was diagnosed with Brown-Sequard syndrome, a neurological disorder, as a result of the damage, according to the suit.

Thomas says he has not regained feeling on the right side of his body.

“The doctor we retained says it’s permanent,” Meshbesher said. “And the doctor says it’s a result of that delay. If they had handled this quickly, immediately, it might have resulted in no loss of feeling.”

Fuller resigned from the DOC in January and voluntarily surrendered her state-issued nursing license.

A formal disciplinary action was filed against Fuller in March by the Minnesota Board of Nursing, which reviewed the 2012 incident and determined Fuller’s inaction was unprofessional and potentially harmful. The board accepted Fuller’s surrender of her license as her punishment. The order noted that Fuller had a previous disciplinary order for ignoring another inmate’s medical situation in 2011. Fuller claimed she was suffering from mental health issues.

Plumm was not disciplined as a result of the incident and remains employed by the DOC.

Meshbesher said the $130,000 settlement “was just the beginning.”

An amended complaint will be filed soon, naming Malachinski - the doctor who allegedly gave the orders to not treat Thomas - and Corizon Health, the contracted medical group he worked for, Meshbesher said.


Malachinski did not return messages seeking comment.

Corizon officials did not comment on specifics of the case.

“Corizon Health is committed to providing quality care to every patient we serve, and we stand behind our strong, proven track record of clinical excellence,” Corizon spokeswoman Susan Morgenstern stated in an email to the Pioneer Press. “Because of patient confidentiality, we are not able to discuss details of the care provided to any individual or actions taken in any individual case. All health care providers must follow these same restrictions.”

Tennessee-based Corizon provided the DOC with on-call doctors for about 15 years, until the group’s contract expired at the end of 2013 and was not renewed. The organization provides medical staff for prisons and corrections facilities nationwide.

As part of Thomas’ settlement with the DOC, Thomas requested that the state agency sign a release allowing him to go after the doctor and the medical group, Meshbesher said.

“We said we’ll agree to take your money on one condition: that you sign this release,” Meshbesher said of the settlement with the DOC. “They’ve admitted that they made a mistake. Now what they’re saying is that the doctor participated in the mistake.”

Thomas, 32, remains in custody at the Stillwater prison on drug charges. He is expected to be released in 2018, after serving 10 years.


The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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