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Marchello McCaster

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Jurors award $560,000 to former Ramsey County inmate with TB

  • Article by: JOY POWELL
  • Star Tribune
  • December 10, 2012 - 10:58 PM

A federal jury on Monday found that a nurse failed to get proper treatment for a former Ramsey County inmate who grew gravely ill with tuberculosis in the workhouse, infecting other inmates and correctional workers.

In a case that's already costing the county millions of dollars from an earlier lawsuit, the jurors said public health nurse Mary Clausen was "deliberately indifferent" to the serious medical needs of Marchello McCaster, who lost 44 pounds while serving 56 days in 2008.

McCaster's attorney argued that she and other nurses ignored the pleas of inmates and correctional officers who said he was sick, even coughing up blood, and needed help.

The jury awarded $590,600 to McCaster, half for compensation and half for punitive damages, said his attorney, Bob Bennett of Minneapolis.

Jurors who heard the case before U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle in St. Paul did not find against two other nurses named in the suit, Patti Vodinelich and Julie Nelson. Two more nurses, their supervisor, a jail superintendent and the county were dismissed from litigation earlier.

The case gained federal status because McCaster, now 30, successfully argued that his Eighth Amendment constitutional right to be free from "cruel and unusual punishment" was violated.

"It's beyond neglect," Bennett said of the case.

About 150 others in the workhouse, including 108 inmates, 42 guards and one inmate, were exposed to the TB outbreak spread by droplets in the air. All need treatment for latent or active infections.

Bennett earlier represented inmates who settled with Ramsey County in a separate class-action suit for costs that he said will reach about $16 million. But county attorney's office spokesman Dennis Gerhardstein said that so far about $9 million has been paid out in costs and attorneys' fees, and that the county doesn't expect its costs to exceed $10 million.

Guards' costs were paid by worker's compensation.

Clifford Greene, an attorney representing Ramsey County, told jurors that McCaster never complained of symptoms indicating TB.

McCaster, now 30, entered the jail on April 17, 2008, when he was 25 and weighed 200 pounds, to serve a sentence for fifth-degree assault. As he became noticeably ill by mid-May, other inmates covered their faces with towels to avoid getting sick from contact with him.

Inmates had testified that McCaster could barely walk. Several who shared his dorm wrote requests for medical care, but nurses insisted that he should be making such requests himself.

Corrections officers, including officer Tonetter Closmore, observed that McCaster was dropping weight, walked like an old man, constantly wrapped himself in a blanket and was shaky.

Clausen had seen McCaster in the workhouse on May 20 and 21, 2008, for an abscessed tooth. She prescribed penicillin but never took vital signs or any other action, though he was coughing and visibly ill.

A week later, she saw him for foot pain and found nothing wrong, though he was experiencing nerve damage.

By June 9, 2008, corrections officer Michael Plumley saw McCaster, who wasn't fully coherent, moving slowly, with "death" in his eyes. Plumley asked nurse Pattie Vodinelich to see McCaster, but she said he was going to get out in a couple of days and could see his own doctor.

Plumley went to his lieutenant, and the nurse then saw McCaster, who went to Regions Hospital with a fever of 102.7. X-rays found pneumonia and extensive TB. McCaster spent the next 3 1/2 months hospitalized with fluid around the heart, resulting in heart damage, liver lesions, nerve damage that made walking difficult and other ailments.

Bennett said the county will pay McCaster the $590,600 because Clausen was employed at the county workhouse.

The nurses all had argued that each had only limited interaction with McCaster and did not perceive him to be seriously ill.

The verdict sends a message to those who house prisoners and others in congregate settings that "they have to be mindful about infectious disease control," Bennett said.

Gerhardstein said the county respects the verdict but is disappointed and is "reviewing all available options at this time."

Joy Powell • 651-925-5038

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