Doctors and a prison health care agency are being sued for failing to prevent the COVID-19 death of a chronically ill inmate who was sent to the Faribault Correctional Facility for a probation violation.

If doctors had been looking out for Ronald Rustan, they wouldn't have sent the senior citizen into a COVID hotbed and would have advocated for his early release, argued attorney Josh Newville. He filed the wrongful death lawsuit Thursday on behalf of Rustan's family in Hennepin County District Court.

"Ron's death was plainly foreseeable and preventable to anyone with common sense, especially his doctors," Newville said.

State court is a new venue for the complaint, which had been pressed earlier this year in federal court against the doctors as well as the Minnesota Department of Corrections. U.S. District Judge Nancy Brasel dismissed that suit in August, citing caselaw that protected doctors even if they failed to prevent patients from contracting COVID-19.

The department said in a statement that all claims against the state have been dropped or dismissed and that it isn't a defendant in the new case. The state's contractor, Centurion Health, did not reply to a request for comment Thursday.

Advocacy groups raised concerns about the vulnerability of incarcerated people during the pandemic, especially those in Faribault, where about half of COVID-19 tests were turning up positive in late 2020. Sixteen COVID-19 deaths occurred in state and federal correctional facilities in Minnesota through 2021, according to the UCLA COVID Behind Bars Project. Eight were in Faribault.

Minnesota had a "blind spot" in its COVID response that imperiled older and medically fragile inmates, according to the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented seven Faribault inmates in a 2020 lawsuit against the state.

"The COVID-19 infection rates among inmates and staff at the Minnesota Department of Corrections are staggering," according to the complaint.

Ramsey County District Judge Sara Grewing expressed outrage over the high infection rate early in the case, but dismissed the suit after the state made efforts to vaccinate and protect inmates.

Minnesota was surging toward its second COVID-19 wave, with vaccines months away, when Rustan was transferred in October 2020 from St. Cloud to Faribault. More than 200 new coronavirus infections were found among Faribault inmates in the week before his transfer.

An alcoholic, Rustan failed a court-ordered breath test following a felony drunken driving conviction in 2013 and was sentenced to 42 months in prison. His medical history included COPD, asthma, hypertension and the use of immune-suppressing medications to treat rheumatoid arthritis — all risk factors for severe COVID-19.

Newville said Rustan's nonviolent nature, and the fact that nobody was injured by his drunken driving, made him an ideal candidate for a special COVID medical release.

The state had been trying to limit the spread of COVID by reducing its correctional population — from 8,800 in March 2020 at the outset of the pandemic to 7,300 almost a year later. That included 320 inmates selected for special COVID work and medical release.

The department had allowed inmates to request medical releases early in the pandemic, but switched that policy in August 2020 after the first COVID wave receded.

The responsibility of recommending medical releases returned to health care providers, and Newville said that none made a case for Rustan despite noting his many medical problems in their intake records.

Rustan tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 8 after experiencing chest pain, dizziness and fever. The former machinist and laborer had a wife, children and grandchildren who were worried and hoping he could return home to Oklee, Minn., so they could fish and garden and camp together again.

"This COVID thing is not like any sickness I had in the past," Rustan said in a Nov. 10 letter to his wife. "Maybe I will be able to call you if I can get a wheelchair to go to the phone booths. Anyway, this is a pretty scary thing to come down with. Some people got mild cases of COVID. I sure didn't."

Critically low blood oxygen sent Rustan to a hospital emergency room on Nov. 14, and he was placed on a ventilator a week later. A prison physician on Nov. 24 advocated for Rustan's conditional release, which was granted a day later.

Rustan remained shackled to his hospital bed, according to the lawsuit, and isolated from visitors until he died Dec. 10.