Lawsuit: Delaware inmate died in agony after receiving inadequate medical care

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(Marc Levy/AP Photo, file)

(Marc Levy/AP Photo, file)

The family of a Delaware inmate who died from a medical condition while in prison has sued the healthcare providers for the state’s Department of Correction.

The complaint filed last week asserts Luis Cabrera, of Bear, died on Nov. 8, 2018 of a perforated duodenal ulcer after medical staff allegedly ignored his symptoms and failed to provide adequate medical care.

The lawsuit includes medical records noting the 49-year-old inmate at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution complained of severe stomach pain for about three days before he died in his cell. An attorney for Cabrera’s family argues staff could be held responsible for criminally negligent homicide.

“They watched the man in agony, writhing in pain, being so sick he couldn’t even come to the door to his cell, telling them he thinks it’s his appendix,” said attorney Stephen Hampton. “When they did the autopsy, he had two liters of fluid in his abdominal cavity. How could you get two liters of fluid in your abdominal cavity and nobody notices?”

“They did very little to assist this man,” Hampton said. “They didn’t take any x-rays, they didn’t do a CT scan. They didn’t send him to the hospital. They didn’t do a surgical consult. They really did nothing.”

The defendants in the case are Connections Community Support Programs, Inc., which has a contract with the Delaware DOC to provide medical services to inmates in state prisons.

Former Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps, Delaware Bureau Chief of Correctional Healthcare Services March Richman, and the prison’s warden, Kolawole Akinbayo, are also named in the lawsuit.

The Department of Correction said it cannot comment on pending litigation.

Connections said through a spokesman that it could not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but that it had “developed specific policies and procedures in order to react quickly and effectively to the medical needs of anyone we serve, regardless of their severity.”

At the time of his death, Cabrera was serving three life sentences, plus an additional 44 years for the murder of two men in 1996, as well as conspiracy, burglary, and firearm charges.

The inmate first complained of his symptoms in February 2018, when he filed a sick-call form stating he suffered from stomach pain when not taking Tums, according to the lawsuit.

On Nov. 5, 2018, Cabrera sought medical attention for extreme stomach pain, expressing he was in so much agony he was unable to stand.

While placed on medical observation, staff reported he complained of “sharp pains,” and was “crying for pain.”

The symptoms continued into the next morning, when medical staff reported Cabrera screamed, saying, “I can’t talk, the pain is too bad. I think it’s my appendix.” He said the pain even prevented him from walking to his cell door.

Over about a three day period, nurses reported Cabrera “writhed” in pain. Yet, despite his vocalization of severe pain, medical staff continued to write there were “no signs or symptoms of acute medical distress.”

Despite stating he was in agony, the lawsuit contents Cabrera only was given medications used to treat irritable bowel, nausea, and indigestion, as well as a pain reliever. Medical staff took his vital signs, performed some lab testing, and an ultrasound. But the lawsuit claims he never received a CT scan, which is typically performed to rule out any severe problems.

Around 4:15 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2018, while a nurse visited Cabrera’s cell to obtain vitals, he knelt on the floor, hunched over. The nurse wrote Cabrera struggled to get off his knees to get to the door. After waiting several minutes, the nurse proceeded to move on to the next patient.

Ten minutes later, an officer checked in on Cabrera to “ask if he was alive,” and when there was no response, medical staff performed CPR, and called for EMS.

Two days later an autopsy proved Cabrera died of a perforated duodenal ulcer.

The lawsuit argues medical staff should have known perforated duodenal ulcers typically cause sudden onset of severe acute abdominal pain. Instead, they ignored or disregarded the warning signs suggesting Cabrera had an abdominal condition requiring prompt surgical intervention, the lawsuit alleges.

“Really, probably within a couple hours he should have been taken to the hospital when he didn’t get better,” Hampton said, alleging the prison did not have the ability to perform a CT scan.

Instead, medical staff “decided Luis was faking his symptoms” the lawsuit alleges.

The complaint also points to a history of ignoring inmates’ serious medical conditions at other Delaware state prisons.

Raequan Stevens, 19, died of “peritonitis due to ruptured appendix” in 2015, after medical providers disregarded complaints of severe throbbing pain in his abdomen, chest, and radiating to his stomach and thighs, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint also describes the death of Tyrone Daniels, 40, who had a heart attack in 2016, and a medical employee didn’t attempt to resuscitate him or call 911.

“This is not the first time something like this has happened where someone has suffered severe or terrible symptoms and they’ve just ignored them. It’s not unusual,” Hampton said.

Hampton has filed several other lawsuits against Connections.

A 2018 review of healthcare at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna — the site of a deadly prison riot in 2017 — reported a shortage of medical staff and long wait times to receive care. Hampton argues the problems are department-wide, and might have affected Cabrera’s care. Cabrera was moved from Vaughn to Howard R. Young after the uprising, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit alleges Connections’ chief medical officer, who oversees care at all of Delaware’s state prisons, oversaw Cabrera’s treatment over the phone, without an in-person evaluation.

Cabrera’s widow, Stephanie and daughter, Ashley are seeking compensatory damages.

“The wife and daughter both have regular contact with him, and even though he was incarcerated, they did have a relationship,” Hampton said. “When someone like that close to you dies in what you can clearly see is because of neglect or negligence or whatever malfeasance, you want to call it by people who are supposed to be taking care of him it hurts more.”

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