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Oregon Pays Record-Setting Settlement to Family of Inmate Who Died from Influenza

— October 20, 2020

Even after contracting pneumonia, prison officials did almost nothing to treat Michael Barton’s rapidly-worsening flu.

Oregon will pay $2.75 million to the family of an inmate who died from influenza in 2018.

The settlement, says, represents the largest-ever payout offered by the Department of Corrections.

Michael Barton, then aged 54, contracted the flu in January 2018 while incarcerated in Oregon State Penitentiary. His illness progressed, with Barton eventually developing pneumonia, a staph infection, and sepsis.

The lawsuit—filed by Barton’s half-brother, Stephen Brown—alleged that Barton died largely because prison officials were negligent and provided sub-par medical care.

“Michael Barton died a brutal death because he was ignored and then was written off as faking symptoms and refusing medication,” said Portland-based attorney Bryan Dawson, who has represented Brown and Barton’s family throughout the case.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the Oregon Department of Corrections has expressed sympathy for Barton’s family, calling the man’s death “needless and preventable.”

An IV drip. Image via Piqsels. Public domain.

“This should never have happened to any adult in our custody, and for that we sincerely apologize,” Corrections Director Colette S. Peters said in a statement.

Peters said the multi-million dollar settlement “is unprecedented for our department and reflects how far removed the facts of this case are from our standards and expectations of care. We are committed to learning from this case.”

However, Dawson seemed to express some skepticism over whether promised reforms will truly benefit inmates.

“Managers at ODCC testified that Mr. Barton’s death led to reforms but inmates said they haven’t seen significant changes,” Dawson said.

The Statesmen Journal notes that, prior to contracting influenza, Barton had been diagnosed with dementia and other mental health problems. He also had not been able to receive a flu vaccine in either 2017 or 2018.

Barton, says the Journal, died within a month of catching the flu.

In the days preceding his death, he “got dizzy drinking water from his ink,” stopped eating, cried, and begged to be taken to the prison infirmary.

“If any public hospital treated patients this way,” Dawson said, “it would be investigated and shut down.”

Dawson claimed that, even after Barton was diagnosed with pneumonia, prison medical charts show his condition was not closely observed and neither was he given any treatment.

An investigation led by Disability Rights Oregon attributed blame the penitentiary, finding that staff failed to recognize the severity of Barton’s condition.

But Disability Rights Oregon further stressed the culpability of “individual actors” who were aware of Barton’s ill health yet failed to take substantive action.

“Indeed, it is our belief that the conduct of the nurses who responded to Mr. Barton’s cell during the last days of his life were surely negligent, if not deliberately indifferent, to the harms that ended his life,” wrote Joel Greenberg, a staff attorney with DRO.

While initially critical of DRO’s assessment, Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters later agreed that Barton’s death could have been avoided.

“While it may be of little comfort to the family of Mr. Barton, we are committed to ensuring that nothing like this happens again within our facilities,” Peters said.


Record $2.75 million settlement reached for Oregon inmate’s flu death

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