Etienne Choquette, 54, an inmate in the Washington State penal system, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis back in 2009. In early November 2018, a federal jury in Tacoma awarded him $149,000 in compensatory damages and $400,000 in punitive damages – damages meant to punish the offender for, especially egregious behavior – because prison medical staff refused to give him medication prescribed by his doctor for his physical pain.
One of Choquette’s attorneys said the jury award “send a strong message” to the Washington State Department of Corrections (“DOC”) that officials must treat prisoners with “basic human dignity.”
Generic Medication Denied
The medication Choquette needed was not an expensive or experimental drug. It was gabapentin, a non-opioid medication most often used for seizure control, but also prescribed by physicians to treat nerve pain. He had received gabapentin ever since his MS diagnosis, which was before he was sent to prison in 2011. Choquette was convicted of the murder of a man he thought was physically abusing a female friend.
In 2013, his prison neurologist recommended increasing Choquette’s gabapentin dosage, and that’s when his medication issues began. The neurologist’s recommendation for controlling Choquette’s pain was above the standard amount used by the DOC. A general prison doctor had to submit a special request for medication approval.
Instead, the prison pharmacist denied the request and recommended replacing the gabapentin with “extra clinical observation” and upping the dosage of another drug Choquette received.
The new “protocol” just made Choquette’s pain worse, and his doctor again filed a request for gabapentin. Again, the request was refused. This time, another pharmacist alleged that gabapentin had no use in MS patient treatment unless they suffered from a specific eye condition. This pharmacist informed the doctor that Choquette’s case should go before the DOC’s Care Review Committee (“CRC”), which reviews such nonstandard requests for their medical necessity.
The CRC continued denial of gabapentin but agreed to let Choquette see a specialist. The second neurologist agreed with the prior neurologist’s opinion regarding Choquette’s need for an increased gabapentin dosage. However, the CRC once more determined Choquette did not need the drug.
After hearing of the CRC decision, the second neurologist wrote to them, stating that gabapentin was the standard drug for MS patients, that Choquette was in pain and no objective test existed to prove his pain level. The CRC acquiesced and allowed Choquette to receive the recommended treatment.
Eighth Amendment Violation
In the lawsuit, Choquette’s attorneys contended that Choquette’s eighth amendment rights, regarding cruel and unusual punishment, were violated. Although the prison medical staff knew he suffered from MS and knew that gabapentin controlled his pain, they continued to withhold the drug from him for months.
The lawsuit alleges that the DOC permitted the opinion of non-medical staff who were not treating Choquette to override the opinions of medical staff who were treating him. The jury obviously agreed. DOC officials said two of the three defendants in the case were no longer with the DOC, and that the third had retired in 2017, although the person came back in a non-permanent role this year.
If you or a family member denied medical care in jail resulting in serious injury or death, call us. We can help expose the wrongdoers and file a federal lawsuit against everyone involved for compensation and to make sure it never happens again. CALL 866.836.4684 or Connect Online for a no-cost legal consult to learn your rights.