Home Medical Malpractice Medical complaints on Trumbull County, Ohio, jail doctor

Medical complaints on Trumbull County, Ohio, jail doctor

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The Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office, 150 High St. NW, Warren.

The Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office, 150 High St. NW, Warren.

(Robert K. Yosay | Mahoning Matters)

Life-threatening injuries were ignored; medications were missed; constitutional rights were violated — these are some of the myriad civil complaints in the past several years against Trumbull County jail medical workers and others responsible for jail inmates, some of which resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal settlements.

They’re the backdrop for the July 7 arrest of Trumbull County Commissioner Niki Frenchko by Trumbull sheriff’s deputies during a public meeting. She was charged with being disruptive, while drawing attention to those inmates’ complaints about medical negligence and mistreatment at the county jail.

According to Mahoning Matters’ weekslong review of county and federal court records, more than a dozen civil lawsuits — alleging malpractice, negligence, wrongful death, constitutional violations and other claims — have been filed against Dr. Phillip Malvasi, Trumbull County’s independently contracted physician serving the jail and the region’s community-based corrections facility, the Northeast Ohio Community Alternative Program and several of his medical assistants, since Malvasi began working in the jail in 2000.

Some of those cases were settled, but many more were dismissed by the plaintiffs, records show. But they all share similar narratives and trace the same pattern of pervading indifference for jail inmates’ health. In several cases, the suing inmates — or their surviving relatives — claimed they were never once seen by Malvasi. For some of them, that was despite facing serious health complications. Some died before seeing the doctor.

“Malvasi and the medical department at Trumbull Jail have a history of negligence and obvious and deliberate indifference in regard to the medical conditions of the inmates at Trumbull Jail especially when there is a need for emergency care,” reads one lawsuit, a passage which appears in similar lawsuits filed by the same Warren law firm.

Other inmates or their relatives have threatened litigation over more recent incidents, including one former inmate’s mother, who reached out to Frenchko earlier this year after her son contracted a serious bacterial infection while at the jail, and claimed he was denied treatment.

“Something needs to change,” she said.

Malvasi, an osteopathic doctor, maintains a private practice in Niles. His Ohio medical license was first issued in 1998 and last renewed in June. He hasn’t faced any adverse action by the Ohio Medical Board, state records show.

He could not be reached by phone for this report. A message was left with his office.

A cost analysis

Trumbull County’s liability insurer, CORSA, has paid $786,500 to settle 11 claims against Malvasi’s corporation since the county joined the insurer in 2005, according to information provided by the county’s human resources department. The oldest claim is from 2008. Most of the settled claims were for denial of medical treatment, civil rights violations and deliberate indifference to inmates’ medical needs.

Sheriff’s Maj. Daniel Mason, who was a 25-year Warren police officer and worked in administration before he became the Trumbull jail’s administrator, said he often saw civil cases settled after a cost analysis determined it would be more expensive for the government to take a case to trial than to negotiate a settlement and make the case “go away.”

He declined to speak at length about individual civil cases for this report, and instead spoke generally about litigation against law enforcement entities and the Trumbull jail’s protocol.

“Not to discredit anyone’s claim if they felt they were wronged. I have a lot of people file frivolous lawsuits just hoping to get paid,” Mason said.

As the Tribune Chronicle reported in 2018, Malvasi’s insurance costs actually went up that year, due to the number of lawsuits he faced. At that time, there had been seven settled claims against his corporation or the county in the prior four years. The jail doctor’s more than $370,000 contract that year was raised by $27,000 to cover new insurance expenses and other costs, the Tribune Chronicle reported.

On the operations side, Trumbull County has paid Malvasi’s self-named corporation an average of more than $588,000 per year since 2016, mostly for medical services at the jail, but also at NEOCAP, according to Ohio Checkbook reports:

  • $630,538 in 2021;
  • $536,994 in 2020;
  • $551,329 in 2019;
  • $935,795 in 2018;
  • $471,529 in 2017;
  • $406,312 in 2016.

‘Please don’t let me die in here’

When Alfonso Askew became seriously ill while jailed in November 2020, other inmates heard him crying out in pain and, at one point, saying, “please don’t let me die in here,” federal court documents show.

The 48-year-old Askew was booked into the jail Nov. 6, 2020, on weapons and stolen property charges. The Warren husband and father to seven children died a week later, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of his estate in November 2021.

Not long after Askew came to the jail, his health began to deteriorate, according to the lawsuit. Though his symptoms visibly worsened day by day, the jail’s medical staff didn’t refer him to a higher level of care, nor was he ever seen by Malvasi, according to the suit.

A Nov. 9 examination found blood in Askew’s urine. That afternoon, he complained of “real bad pain,” believing he had a gallstone. The jail’s medical professionals told him to keep drinking fluids, the lawsuit claims.

“I’m in this place dying. … I have to go to the hospital,” he said in a phone call from the jail, according to the lawsuit.

But his complaints “remained unevaluated and untreated” through the next day.

By the early morning of Nov. 11, Askew was struggling to breathe, which was noted in an incident report taken by a jail officer, the suit claims. Medical assistants noted a protrusion near his pelvis, about the size of a quarter, which appeared to have grown upon a second examination later that day. But Askew still was not referred for advanced treatment.

That afternoon, Askew called again for medical staff, but no one came, according to the complaint. He called again, two hours later, and was instead visited by a jail officer. By this point, Askew was “breathing sharply,” “sweating profusely” and had removed his clothes. He said he was unable to lie down due to the pain.

A jail officer told the medical assistant about Askew’s condition and said he needed to be seen, but that assistant told the officer “she had just seen Mr. Askew, and declined to reassess him,” the suit reads.

So Askew was given ibuprofen. The assistant said he was “on Dr. Malvasi’s list” to be seen.

Askew’s wife left multiple phone messages for medical staff “saying something was terribly wrong with her husband,” but never received a call back, the suit claims. A medical assistant who answered one of those calls told her inmates use medical calls “as an excuse to get out of their cells,” according to the complaint.

Other inmates who heard Askew’s cries “banged on their doors and intercom buzzers,” demanding jail staff help Askew. But those officers instead threatened to take away the inmates’ privileges if they continued to ring the intercoms, according to the complaint.

At about 11 p.m. Nov. 11, Askew claimed he was vomiting blood. A medical assistant declined to see Askew, since he “was up to see the doctor in the morning.”

A medical assistant who later saw Askew told him he was vomiting bile. Askew was given an antacid and made to wait for his doctor’s appointment the next morning.

But that morning, jail officers found Askew unresponsive in his cell. A medical assistant and jail officers performed CPR on him until EMS arrived.

Askew was taken to a hospital and, soon after, was moved to a critical care unit “in grave condition,” according to the suit. He died the following day.

According to the lawsuit, which cites Askew’s death certificate, the man’s abdominal pain was caused by a peptic ulcer that had ruptured, leading to gas and fluid buildup in a part of his abdominal cavity and shock syndrome — all of which were “serious medical needs.”

“Mr. Askew suffered a slow and painful death, and was repeatedly denied the opportunity to be assessed, evaluated, or treated by qualified medical practitioners despite his excruciating pain, obvious physical symptoms, and repeated requests for care,” the lawsuit reads.

Attorneys have brought several claims against Malvasi, his nurses and medical assistants and one of the jail’s officers, including wrongful death, negligence, medical malpractice and civil rights violations. The lawsuit demands an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages.

Mason declined to comment on the case to Mahoning Matters, since it is in active litigation.

Pretrial deadlines for the case are scheduled out through at least August 2023, court records show.

‘They treated my husband like he was guilty’

Mark Reese, of Jefferson, was accused of rape and turned himself into the Trumbull County jail Dec. 22.

The 56-year-old man had an “extensive medical history,” according to a coroner’s report obtained by Mahoning Matters, including hypertension and diabetes, among others. He had been prescribed 10 various types of medication to control his blood pressure, heart function and other organs, including two types of insulin.

Reese was found slumped over and unresponsive in his cell the morning of Jan. 2, according to the report. He was later pronounced dead in an emergency room — the cause was “probable sudden cardiac death” due to his worsening congestive heart failure, complicated by comorbidities like his “poorly controlled diabetes.” The prior evening, Reese complained of chest pain and oozing foot sores.

His widow, Cathy Reese, told Mahoning Matters her husband was supposed to receive insulin shots after every meal and at bedtime, but when his vials were returned, there was still some medication left in them.

“He talked to me several times on the phone and said he wasn’t feeling good,” she said. “They weren’t giving him some of his medicines. He was all-around feeling terrible.”

She said she’s considering filing a civil lawsuit.

“I want the jail to stop killing people,” she said, adding there’s a “list of people who are dying in there and who are just being poorly treated.

“They’re in there for a reason, but you’re innocent until proven guilty. They treated my husband like he was guilty.”

Mason also declined to comment on Reese’s death to Mahoning Matters, since it has the potential to be litigated. He said the jail’s medical workers track inmates’ prescribed medications, but said those records are kept solely by Malvasi’s subcontracted office, to comply with privacy law requirements.

Though it’s been six months since her husband’s death, Cathy Reese said she hasn’t yet been able to meet with Mason or other jail officials about it.

“Who’s in charge? Who can I talk to? I got nowhere,” she said. “When I did call the jail I was told certain things have to be subpoenaed; I have to get an attorney.”

Mason said he was unaware of any relatives of inmates who have died at the jail and have yet to be addressed by jail staff.

“If anyone asks us a question, we give the best information we can,” he told Mahoning Matters.

Three jail cases that were settled

Among the civil lawsuits involving Malvasi and the jail researched by Mahoning Matters, a common complaint was inconsistent medication schedules.

Michael Edwards, of Middlefield, was taking anti-seizure medication three times per day when he was incarcerated in the jail in September 2013, according to his civil complaint.

When he received only two pills each day for three days straight, he had seizures that “severely and permanently harmed” him.

While in the throes of a seizure, he was able to exit his cell — because it had an inoperable lock — and fell “from a high-level tier to the floor of the jail,” his attorneys claimed in his 2014 lawsuit.

The suit brought claims of medical malpractice and negligence against Malvasi, a jail nurse, the county commissioners and then-Sheriff Thomas Altiere.

Edwards sustained broken ribs, wrist and teeth and a punctured lung, and needed hospitalization, the suit claimed. Despite that, his attorneys claimed his medical attention was delayed.

The case was settled for more than $49,000 in 2015. The malpractice claim against Malvasi and a nurse was dropped before that settlement, court records show.

___

Kurt Platzer was a 32-year-old graphic designer who “worked hard but was troubled by an alcohol addiction,” according to his federal lawsuit. The Warren man was convicted on a DUI charge in 2008.

His 30-day sentence for showing up to a probation check-in while under the influence in 2009 was the first time he’d ever been in jail, according to his federal civil complaint. His family hoped it would be “a chance for him to work towards sobriety in a safe environment,” and Platzer expected the jail could manage his withdrawal symptoms, which became severe.

Platzer’s first seizure happened during his booking into the jail in June 2009. Two others happened over the next 12 hours. Malvasi ordered him to be given phenobarbital, an anti-seizure drug, but didn’t personally see to him. Platzer was placed in a general population cell, rather than a cell where doctors could keep an eye on him, according to the complaint.

His fourth seizure came two days after being jailed. Afterward, a medical assistant at the jail noted blood coming from Platzer’s nose and ears. Platzer had sustained a life-threatening skull fracture, but Malvasi didn’t come to the jail to examine him, according to the lawsuit.

When Platzer, upon being escorted back to his cell, ignored orders to lay on his bunk, an officer deployed his Taser. The stun gun’s maker, however, warns of an increased risk of serious injury or death if the devices are used on people who are experiencing drug or alcohol withdrawals, the lawsuit claims.

Platzer stopped breathing three hours later. Officers could not resuscitate him. He was later declared brain-dead at a hospital.

The coroner ruled his cause of death was blunt trauma to his cranium and brain, “most likely due to a fall while in acute alcohol withdrawal.” His death investigation suggested the circumstances could have been “caused by an unlawful act or criminal negligence.”

The court sided with Platzer’s family in ruling that two of Malvasi’s medical assistants displayed “deliberate indifference” to Platzer’s medical needs, and that Malvasi failed to train and supervise corrections officers.

“The jail physician [Malvasi] was aware that Mr. Platzer was experiencing multiple seizures, delirium, bleeding due to head trauma, extremely unstable vitals, and yet he never personally met with Mr. Platzer, never prescribed appropriate treatment and never directed that Mr. Platzer be transported to a hospital for appropriate management of his severe withdrawal symptoms,” reads his complaint. “Left to their own devices, the other defendants responded to Mr. Platzer’s confused mental state with a Taser — a weapon known to be inappropriate for persons suffering from alcohol withdrawal and unstable vitals. Mr. Platzer died hours later.”

The case was settled for nearly $300,000 in 2012.

___

Just before Adam Border was arrested in January 2008, he ingested “an excessive amount” of prescription pills, including the opioid Oxycontin and Valium. Though Border appeared to be “visibly intoxicated” while en route to the jail, the jail officer who screened him upon his arrival determined he wasn’t under the influence of drugs, according to his federal civil complaint.

Though a medical assistant and two jail officers noted later that night that Border had become more intoxicated, they “provided no care” and failed to intervene, according to his federal civil complaint filed that year. At about midnight, Border struggled to breathe. There was no call for medical help, according to the complaint.

Border was found unresponsive the next morning. He was pronounced dead at a hospital, due to a lethal level of oxycodone. His death was ruled accidental.

Border’s wrongful death suit was on hold for more than a year while Malvasi sought qualified immunity, a form of legal protection that keeps government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations. After he was ultimately denied, attorneys for Border’s estate brought their claims against him in an amended complaint.

But ultimately, Malvasi was dismissed as a defendant from all charges but one, intentional infliction of emotional distress, since the others — which included malpractice, wrongful death, constitutional violations and more — were filed after their statutes of limitations had expired.

Attorneys for Border’s estate initially filed the complaint against the county sheriff and claim to have been unaware that Malvasi was the jail’s physician until more than a year after the initial complaint was filed. They argued Malvasi was likely aware that he was the proper defendant for the charges and that he did not come forward — but they did not offer any proof of that to the court.

The case was settled for more than $250,000 in 2012.

‘We took over a mess’

Summaries of Trumbull County’s annual state jail inspections from the past five years appear to back up the jail lawsuits’ plaintiffs in several regards — the jail for years was unable to show the state proof that:

  • Health-trained personnel were properly screening inmates for serious medical or mental health issues — or that screening personnel were, in fact, health-trained;
  • Inmates received a full health appraisal within 14 days of booking;
  • The jail was giving inmates the ability to report medical and mental health complaints or emergencies;
  • Medical staff members were properly dispensing medications;
  • Inmates were being checked every hour;
  • The jail even had a contracted health authority — a physician like Malvasi.

Between 2017 and 2019, the jail missed between 22 and 29 of a total 115 inspection standards each year, including between eight and 16 standards deemed “essential” to be considered a fully compliant jail by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

But when speaking to Mahoning Matters, Mason focused on what’s changed since then.

The jail’s inspection in 2020 was the first time in several years that the facility was found to be fully compliant with all ODRC’s “essential” standards, according to Mason.

Mason told Mahoning Matters when he was tasked with heading up the jail, after Sheriff Paul Monroe took office in 2017, they “took over a mess from the previous administration.

“The jail was completely noncompliant. It took us at least the first year to get our feet on the ground, then began attacking efficiency,” Mason said.

He claimed the Trumbull jail did meet many of the ODRC standards found lacking in those first three years — but the jail didn’t have the documentation to back it up. The jail’s flawed management system also meant medical check-ins weren’t being properly logged, he said — so officials bought a new one.

The slowdown of the COVID-19 pandemic also afforded jail officials time to completely rewrite the jail’s policies and procedures, he said. Mason used other jails’ manuals as models.

“I was able to give staff a more clear-cut picture as to what their job description is,” he said.

The jail has an average daily population of about 250 inmates, Mason said. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, its average daily population was at least 300, he said.

The more than 25-year-old jail still has difficulties providing hot water to inmates’ showers and sinks, Mason said — a deficiency that’s been noted on the jail’s inspections each year since 2017.

Inmate treatment goes public

During a June public meeting, Trumbull County Commissioner Niki Frenchko raised concerns about medical treatment of county jail inmate Robert Parkhurst Jr. She read aloud an email she received from Parkhurst’s mother, Teresa Crew, who claimed her son became ill while incarcerated at the jail for five weeks between April and May.

Crew said Parkhurst made three “documented” requests for antibiotics, which weren’t granted.

In response, Mason told Mahoning Matters that records show Parkhurst made only one request for over-the-counter medication.

Days after Parkhurst was transferred from the jail to NEOCAP, he was taken to a hospital. He was vomiting and unable to speak or walk, according to Crew. He was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis and ended up in intensive care, she said.

“Prisoners are someone’s child, they are human and regardless of why they are in custody their health should be very important,” Crew wrote to Frenchko. “I was called by the hospital asking me if my son’s heart stops do I want him saved, the next question was if my son stops breathing, do I want to put him on a ventilator.

“I am sorry but something needs to change,” Crew wrote.

Parkhurst has recovered, but his illness left a lasting impact on his vision, WKBN reported in early July.

Malvasi, in a letter sent to commissioners the day after that June meeting, called Frenchko’s comments “outrageous,” and said he was bombarded with phone calls about the allegations. He was considering resigning, his letter suggested.

“I cannot tolerate this type of conduct from a government official who should be working with me,” Malvasi wrote.

“I have real concerns that given her conduct that she may be acting in collusion with some third party or his or her attorney to bring a claim against Trumbull County as well as myself. Given her obvious fiduciary duties to the county as a commissioner, I find her conduct to be unprofessional at best and possibly motivated to cause and/or contribute to litigation against me and Trumbull County.”

Since Malvasi is a third-party contractor, his performance falls under the purview of the county board of commissioners — which is the county’s contracting body — rather than the sheriff’s office or the jail itself.

Frenchko, during commissioners’ July 27, meeting, said she proposed a nine-member panel tasked with reviewing complaints about medical treatment at the county jail and offering feedback to the board of commissioners, but the motion died for lack of a second.

‘This is political’

Trumbull County Sheriff Paul Monroe demanded a public apology from Frenchko for publicizing Crew’s claim before bringing it to the sheriff’s office or filing a formal complaint. According to his letter, read aloud by a clerk during commissioners’ July 7 meeting, an internal investigation found Crew’s claim to be unsubstantiated.

“Such a public presentation prior to initiating an appropriate investigation through well-established, existing investigatory protocol is contrary to sound government and procedural justice safeguards,” the letter reads.

“Commissioner Frenchko’s presentation not only unnecessarily, inappropriately, and inaccurately besmirched the performance of the men and woman operating the Trumbull County Jail but also negatively portrayed both the performance and the professional reputation of the third party vendor providing medical care to inmates of the Trumbull County Jail,” it continues, referring to Malvasi.

During that July 7 meeting — which was broadcast live to Frenchko’s Facebook page — Frenchko repeatedly interrupted the clerk’s reading, injecting her own comments in defense.

“These attacks or complaints against me at a meeting don’t relate to county business. This is ridiculous,” Frenchko said.

At one point, Frenchko turned her phone’s camera toward the clerk, who told Frenchko it made her uncomfortable and attempted to cover her face.

Frenchko claimed that after presenting Crew’s claims in June, she received more complaints from former inmates about jail mistreatment. She launched into those complaints and continued talking, despite commissioners’ attempts to bring the meeting to order, the video shows.

Moments later, deputies appeared behind Frenchko to escort her out of the room. She was charged with a misdemeanor count of disrupting a lawful meeting.

“Both Commissioner [Mauro] Cantalamessa and Commissioner [Frank] Fuda told Commissioner Frenchko she was being disruptive,” reads the incident report from one of the arresting deputies, Sgt. Robert Ross. “At that time, Sergeant [Harold] Wix and I approached Commissioner Frenchko. … Commissioner Cantalamessa advised Commissioner Frenchko that she can be removed for disrupting a lawful meeting.”

She was led into the hallway — to applause in the meeting room — and handcuffed.

“This is political,” Frenchko told the deputies, according to Ross’ report.

Sheriff Monroe told WKBN his deputies gave Frenchko “more latitude” than would have been afforded a member of the public for the disruption. “What she did violated the law, and she forced our deputies to take official action,” Monroe said.

Frenchko pleaded not guilty at her arraignment the following day in Warren Municipal Court. Both a special prosecutor and a visiting judge have been appointed to the case, which is due for a review Thursday.

Frenchko’s attorney, David Betras, of Youngstown, claimed her right to free speech was violated, and said he intends to file a federal civil rights lawsuit “against those who sought to silence her.”

“I never thought I would see anything like this in the United States, but there it was, live on Facebook, an elected official arrested and silenced by her political enemies for exercising her First Amendment rights. It was truly chilling,” Betras wrote in a news release.

“Whether Frank Fuda, Mauro Cantalamessa, or Paul Monroe like it or not, Commissioner Frenchko was duly elected by the people of Trumbull County,” Betras continued. “When they oppress her, they are oppressing them which, in turn, undermines our democracy. The notion that she owes anyone an apology for doing her job by raising legitimate questions about conditions in the jail is ludicrous.”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Attorney David Betras is a regular contributor to Mahoning Matters.]

Justin Dennis has been on the beat since 2011, covering crime, courts and public education. Dennis grew up in Poland and Salem and studied journalism and communications at Cleveland State University and University of Pittsburgh.





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