MACON, Ga. — The state of Georgia has agreed to pay $550,000 to a diabetic inmate serving a life sentence for murder to settle his lawsuit alleging that he lost his left leg because of improper care and neglect by a prison doctor.
The settlement means Michael Tarver’s case against Dr. Chiquita Fye, the medical director at Macon State Prison, won’t go to trial as scheduled this month and ends an improbable legal proceeding that began three years ago with a lawsuit written in longhand and filed without the aid of an attorney.
Tarver’s federal lawsuit asserted that Fye, the lone defendant, was deliberately indifferent to his injury as he languished for months in the prison infirmary. Deliberate indifference to a prison inmate’s medical needs violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits governments from imposing cruel and inhuman punishment.
U.S. District Judge Marc T. Treadwell signed off on an order Monday stating that a settlement had been reached. The case was scheduled for trial starting Sept. 25 in Treadwell’s court in Macon.
The amount of the settlement was disclosed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by Mike Brown, an Augusta attorney who began representing Tarver when the case entered the discovery phase. Brown said Tarver, who is 55 and serving a sentence of life without parole for the 1994 murder of a Columbus convenience store clerk, plans to distribute a “good portion” of the money to his family.
Fye, 65, has been the medical director at Macon State Prison since 2006, making her one of the longest-tenured physicians working for Georgia Correctional HealthCare, the branch of Augusta University that provides medical services for the Department of Corrections. The Emory-trained doctor receives an annual salary of $159,324 to oversee a facility that employs 20 nurses and upper-level providers and provides 24-hour care to men from multiple institutions.
Despite the settlement, Georgia Correctional HealthCare stands behind Fye, a university spokeswoman said. Christen Engel, the school’s associate vice president for communications, said that conclusion was reached after what the university believes was an extensive review of Fye’s conduct.
“GCHC human resources professionals interviewed providers at Macon State Prison and found that Dr. Fye continually exhibits professionalism and sound judgment when caring for her patients,” Engel wrote in an email.
Engel added that the organization is taking steps to improve wound care education for all its providers.
Fye still faces another potential trial in federal court stemming from a lawsuit in which she is accused of failing to ensure the safety of a man who was abruptly cut off from his prescribed daily dose of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax. The man, William Stoner, ultimately suffered a seizure and had to be transported by helicopter to a hospital for treatment.
Tarver's amputation and Stoner's seizure were among the issues detailed by the AJC last month in a story in which six former healthcare workers at the prison 130 miles south of Atlanta in Oglethorpe questioned Fye's care of inmates. In depositions and interviews, the six said Fye's disdain for criminals at times caused her to withhold vital treatment when she believed inmates were faking or otherwise trying to take advantage.
Tarver’s leg was amputated above the knee in November 2012, six months after he slipped and fell on a wet floor in the prison kitchen, opening a dime-size cut above his ankle. As a diabetic, Tarver was particularly vulnerable to infection, but evidence developed through his lawsuit indicated that the wound was allowed to become dangerously toxic even as he was under observation in the infirmary.
One former prison nurse said in a deposition that the wound became so foul-smelling that the odor was noticeable outside Tarver’s room. Another testified she had informed Fye that tissue within the wound had turned black, but the doctor didn’t respond.
One of the country’s foremost wound care experts, Dr. John Macdonald, also provided a deposition in which he was highly critical of Fye. Macdonald, a professor at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine who has established a wound clinic in Haiti, testified that Tarver’s treatment violated the basic tenets of wound care and that what happened to him “would have never happened in Haiti.”
Fye testified that she did not notice the smell or the black tissue. She further argued that her treatment was adequate because she twice prescribed antibiotics for Tarver and had him admitted at one point to a local emergency room.
Lawsuits filed by prison inmates “pro se” — without an attorney — often do not survive early procedural challenges, but Tarver’s case, initially written by hand on 26 lined pages, was different.
Eventually realizing that he needed an attorney, Tarver hired Brown, who obtained the deposition testimony.
Evidence developed by Brown also showed that some of Tarver’s medical records are missing, including an order for a wound consultation that a former physician assistant testified she wrote when Fye wouldn’t do one.
In pre-trial filings, Brown stated that key documents had been destroyed and asked Treadwell to make that known in his jury instructions. The judge had yet to rule on the request when the case settled.
Brown said Tarver, now incarcerated at Augusta State Medical Prison, has a prosthetic leg but mostly gets around using a wheelchair. Weight fluctuations caused by Tarver’s diabetes limit his use of the prosthetic device, the attorney said.
Fye’s issues mark the second time in the last two years that Georgia Correctional HealthCare has been forced to deal with questions regarding one of its doctors.
In 2015, the organization fired the physician most responsible for treating female inmates, Dr. Yvon Nazaire, after the AJC revealed how nine women had died in his care under questionable circumstances at Pulaski State Prison and Emanuel Women's Facility. The AJC's series also cast doubt on the truthfulness of the resume Nazaire submitted when he was hired for his position.
Since the AJC first began reporting on Nazaire, three lawsuits have been filed dealing with his treatment of inmates and another is expected, according to a notice of claim filed in that case earlier this year.
Medical board fails to act
The Georgia Composite Medical Board can sanction physicians when it finds they failed to provide appropriate medical care. However, it has yet to take action against Dr. Chiquita Fye, the medical director at Macon State Prison.
The board did not sanction Dr. Yvon Nazaire, who oversaw healthcare for Georgia women inmates, even after a state report found that the deaths of inmates in his care clearly demonstrated that his treatment fell below community standards. Nazaire avoided discipline through a loophole: He allowed his Georgia license to lapse.
Some women in Nazaire's care told the AJC about botched cancer diagnoses. You can read that story here: http://bit.ly/2jOq2t4
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