A trial date has been set in a lawsuit against the county, sheriff and a doctor alleging that a former Yellowstone County jail inmate’s cancer went undiagnosed for almost a year — leading to a ruptured lump in his throat followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatment for advanced cancer.
In September 2009, officers arrested the plaintiff in the case, 50-year-old Fred Everett Miller, in Missouri on a warrant for an alleged theft. He was returned to Billings and booked into the Yellowstone County Detention Facility.
While in the jail over the next 11 months, Miller complained at least 17 times about a lump in his throat, severe pain or other medical problems with his mouth and throat without ever being properly diagnosed or treated, according the lawsuit, filed by attorney Alex Rate, of Livingston.
District Judge Michael Moses recently scheduled the lawsuit for trial in October 2015.
Miller wasn’t diagnosed with cancer until September 2010 — after he had been transferred to a detention facility in Missoula, the lawsuit alleges.
The complaint states Miller lost about 100 pounds while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy. Rate said last week that Miller, who is on probation in Yellowstone County, is unable to eat solid food and has a permanent feeding tube.
According to medical records filed in the case, Miller smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day for 25 years.
The lawsuit is against a number of parties, including Yellowstone County, the Yellowstone County Detention Facility and Sheriff Mike Linder. The lawsuit also makes claims against George F. Sheckleton, the doctor who contracted with the jail while Miller was an inmate there, and a company associated with Sheckleton, Endurance Inc., along with other unnamed parties.
Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder declined to comment and referred questions to the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office. The county’s chief civil litigator, Kevin Gillen, said his office has a policy of not commenting about ongoing civil cases.
Sheckleton, who said he is semi-retired and works from Bozeman, also declined to comment.
Jail doctor Sheckleton
In December 2011, the county removed Sheckleton from his position as jail doctor and — over his public objections — contracted RiverStone Health to provide medical services at the detention facility.
Sheckleton outlined his disapproval in a December 2010 letter to Gillen, the county’s chief civil litigator. Sheckleton claimed that RiverStone’s services would not be cost-effective.
He had been the jail’s doctor since the 1980s. He had been contracted as the jail’s doctor at $200 a day and was on on-call 24/7, but spent less than an hour a day at the jail, according to a 2011 Gazette report.
In 1974, Sheckleton was the founding director of the local health department, which is now RiverStone Health. He left the department in 1995, he said in his letter to Gillen.
‘Hole in his throat’
The lawsuit claims Miller — who is a registered violent offender for a 2004 assault with a weapon — was the victim of negligence, medical malpractice, cruel and unusual punishment, and that his “right to individual dignity” was violated.
After one complaint to jail staff, he was told to drink “plenty of water,” and after another he was given salt water to gargle, the lawsuit states. In May 2010, he complained specifically that he thought he had cancer.
Twice on July 11, 2010, he complained that a lump in his throat had burst and his mouth was full of blood. Medical staff prescribed ibuprofen and salt water rinses, the lawsuit alleges.
Later that month, a judge sentenced Miller for theft. He was transferred to a Missoula detention facility in August 2010.
An unnamed Missoula jail staff member commented on Miller’s case in a Sept. 10, 2010, message quoted in the lawsuit, saying, “You’ll love this challenge ... He tells me he had been complaining for 4 months about a ‘hole in his throat.’ He states no treatment until the week before coming here when he was given 10 days of Penicillin.
“So our nurses do his (evaluation) — and reported something not right in his throat,” the quoted message continues. “Anyhow, they are right. He has a crater that was possibly a ruptured peritonsillar abscess on the left side of his throat — he recalls something popping and bleeding at the beginning of his problems. He is also complaining of pain and swelling in the right jaw.”
It’s unclear who the message was sent to.
In the following weeks, 17 of Miller’s teeth were extracted and he was diagnosed with cancer, the lawsuit states. He was ultimately put on probation and transferred back to Billings for treatment.
Rate, Miller’s attorney, said his client is seeking the statutory maximum of $1.5 million in damages that can be claimed against the county.
Gillen released Monday the county’s policy on medical care for inmates that would have been in effect while Miller was at the county jail.
The 11-page policy states, among other things, that all inmates are “entitled to health care comparable to that available to the citizens in the surrounding community.”
The county’s policy on healthcare for inmates has since been replaced by RiverStone Health, which now oversees medical services at the jail, Gillen said.