Wednesday, July 3, 2002
Board Approves $800,000 Malpractice Settlement Over Jail Medical Care
By NAZANIN AGANGE, Staff Writer
County supervisors yesterday approved an $800,000 settlement payment to a former inmate who suffers from permanent brain damage because of improper medical attention he received in county jail.
Supervisors went into closed session on the advice of county counsel and voted 3-0 to approve the settlement. Supervisors Gloria Molina, Yvonne Burke, and Zev Yaroslavsky voted in favor of settling. Supervisor Michael Antonovich stepped out of the room and did not vote. It was unclear yesterday whether Supervisor Don Knabe abstained or was also not present for the vote.
County Counsel Lloyd “Bill” Pellman said supervisors went into closed session because of concerns Antonovich expressed about the current quality of health care in the Sheriff’s Department. Pellman declined comment on details of the discussions or on any corrective actions.
The settlement was recommended by a county claims panel on June 3. It is the largest payment over the past year resulting from Los Angeles County jail medical care, which has come under increasing public scrutiny as inmate malpractice claims multiply.
The payout is set to come out of a Sheriff’s Department fund dedicated to litigation, but if the department, beleaguered by budget issues, cannot make the payment, the money could be drawn out of county general funds.
The Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jails, is legally responsible for providing medical care to inmates.
Sheriff Lee Baca, blaming what he said is a $100 million budget shortfall in his department, has released more than 2,000 inmates since June 13. The new fiscal year began July 1.
Sheriff’s Department Correctional Services Division Commander Marc Klugman said there have been 13 medical malpractice suits against the county stemming from the jails over the past year, eight of which were dismissed. The remaining five were settled for approximately $184,000.
Deputy County Counsel Gary N. Miller noted that the Department of Health Services has settled 122 cases for nearly $15.5 million in the same time period, he said. Two weeks ago, supervisors settled a malpractice claim against DHS by a woman who has terminal cancer for $475,000.
The Claims Board recommended the settlement for Larry Small and his wife, Rosa, based on county counsel’s legal advice and a review of documents dating from October 1997 that suggested the jail’s medical staff missed clear evidence in blood tests of severe disease.
Small was found unconscious in his jail cell in January 1998 and was rushed to a hospital, where doctors discovered a brain lesion.
Small was jailed in Castaic on a third-strike burglary charge. Before being discharged on April 9, 1998, his felony was reduced to a misdemeanor.
Small filed a claim for his injuries on Jan. 20, 1998. In August, he filed a civil rights and medical malpractice lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the county. He has continued to have problems with his memory and brain function, according to the complaint.
Currently, the North County jail in Saugus has a medical staff of about 60, including two medical doctors, two dentists and 50 nurses—nearly all of whom are registered nurses, Klugman said.
In the three North and East County jails, the medical staff sees an average of 940 inmates a day to administer medication three times a day and 50,000 sick patients, including repeat visitors, each month, Klugman said.
The Sheriff’s Department now uses a database that allows jail medical staff easy access to inmates’ medical records and allows them to order pharmaceuticals and lab exams online.
The Jail Health Information System has been introduced incrementally over the past 18 months and is unique to Los Angeles, Klugman said.
“J-HIS is really important [because] in a hospital setting, the patients are stationary and the doctors move around; in jail, it’s just the opposite,” Klugman said. The system gives medical staff better information on an inmate no matter what facility he is moved to, Klugman continued.
Antonovich could not be reached. It was not immediately clear whether his quality concerns were addressed by JHIS and other possible improvements to the Sheriff’s Department’s medical services.
Klugman said the number of malpractice cases brought against the Sheriff’s Department is not large, considering that the department sees over 80,000 medical records a year.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company