Updated: State to pay $740,000 in inmate's death

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WALLA WALLA — The state Department of Corrections has agreed to pay $740,000 to the family of an inmate who died in custody at Washington State Penitentiary after suffering from a painful and treatable illness.

Ricardo Mejia, 26, died in January 2011 after developing flesh-eating bacteria so severe that it eventually forced doctors to remove his rectum. But before it came to that, he had complained for weeks about pain and a rash, state records show.

The former inmate’s family claimed in a lawsuit that the staff at the prison misdiagnosed the problem.

“While in state custody, Ricardo Mejia’s medical providers ignored obvious signs of infection and serious illness and he literally rotted to death under their care through negligence and deliberate indifference,” according to the lawsuit.

One of those providers, physician assistant Kenneth Moore, was charged with unprofessional conduct by a Department of Health commission, but the charge was dismissed. He continues to be employed at the prison.

Moore, commenting today to the Union-Bulletin on his own behalf and not as a penitentiary employee, said he was not assigned as the primary care provider for the inmate.

“I saw him because I was on call that weekend,” Moore said. “He had problems for weeks prior. I saw him that morning, I put him in our infirmary and when he worsened, I sent him to St. Mary.”

The settlement did not include an admission of wrongdoing. A state Department of Health investigation into the death earlier found “deficiencies” in Mejia’s care.

The death caused the Department of Corrections to order several changes at the prison, including more clearly identifying a doctor for each inmate, ensuring each admission to the medical unit is discussed with supervisors, establishing regular weekday medical-staff meetings and educating all staff about flesh-eating bacteria, spokeswoman Norah West said.

“Anytime an incident like this occurs, we take it very seriously,” West said.

In cases of flesh-eating bacteria, the mortality rate is 50 percent at best, Moore said today. “The disease travels fast and is rarely seen until it is very serious. If you are at a teaching hospital, for example, you may have a best outcome, and this young man was in prison.”

The case was, he added, “a bad incident with a terrible outcome.”

Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said the office could not say how the amount of the settlement compared with others involving DOC.

Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, which represented the family in the lawsuit, said this was one of the state’s biggest-ever settlements related to the medical treatment of an inmate.

Mejia, who was in prison for murder, had a history of rectal bleeding and was treated for a rash and other problems starting in the fall of 2010, according to a Department of Health investigation.

He saw prison-medical staff 14 times between Nov. 29, 2010, and Jan. 10, 2011, but continued to report being in pain.

On Jan. 11, he said he had a “medical emergency” and was eventually admitted to the prison’s medical unit.

On the morning of Jan. 15, Moore, the physician assistant, “noted that he anticipated (Mejia) would improve and return to inmate housing within a few days,” according to the investigation.

Mejia was taken to Providence St. Mary Medical Center that afternoon and airlifted that evening to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, where he had surgery. He died the next day.

The Seattle Times contributed to this report.

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