AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Georgia inmate's lawsuit beats the odds, heads to trial

When Michael Tarver first reached out, Mike Brown didn’t immediately jump in.

Tarver, an inmate doing his time at the state prison hospital in Augusta, wanted Brown, an attorney based in the city, to help with a lawsuit he had filed a year earlier. But Brown wasn’t ready to commit until he looked closely at the suit. Then he made a startling discovery: This was no ordinary prison inmate’s lawsuit.

“I flipped when I saw the pleading,” Brown said, discussing the case recently.

Federal court dockets are full of lawsuits filed by inmates suing over perceived mistreatment without benefit of legal representation. Most face procedural obstacles at the outset and quickly fail.

But Tarver’s case is a rarity. It crossed those early thresholds and then grabbed Brown’s interest enough for the attorney to sign on and shepherd it through discovery.

Now, with Brown’s help,  Tarver is a month away from a federal court jury in Macon considering evidence that the reason he lost his left leg was because of a Georgia prison doctor’s negligence.

“You don’t see these kinds of cases go forward very often,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center and a former attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division. “(Tarver) has really looked through the eye of the needle.”

Tarver’s leg was amputated above the knee in 2012 after a dime-sized cut became severely infected. The 55-year-old inmate received the cut when he slipped while working in the kitchen at  Macon State Prison and fell under a machine that holds trays.

Tarver, who is  serving a sentence of life without parole for the 1994 murder of a Columbus convenience store clerk, was treated for months in the Oglethorpe prison's infirmary.  But he never received advanced wound care even though, as a diabetic with a history of circulation problems, he was vulnerable to infection.

When Tarver filed his lawsuit in June 2014, he filled 26 handwritten pages with names, dates and other details of his treatment. The suit, which initially named a multitude of defendants,  survived attempts to have it dismissed on procedural grounds, but Tarver soon realized he needed an attorney.

Tarver first wrote Brown a letter. When it went unanswered, he followed up with a phone call. Brown wasn’t in that day, but his daughter, Georgia, then in law school, was there and took the call.  She told her father he needed to look closely at the inmate's case.

Taking his daughter’s advice, Brown said he took the time to delve into Tarver’s issues and quickly realized all that the inmate had been through.

“My instinct, based on what he said and the way he said it, was there was probably something more there,” Brown said.

Brown couldn’t help Tarver with one aspect of the case. The inmate had not listed either the Georgia Department of Corrections or Georgia Correctional HealthCare, the branch of Augusta University that provides medical personnel for the DOC, as defendants. When Brown signed on, it was too late to add them.

But the attorney was able to obtain a series of depositions that raise serious questions about Dr. Chiquita Fye, Macon State Prison’s long-time medical director, and Fye is now the sole focus of the case.

Five former healthcare workers from the prison have provided depositions backing up Tarver’s claim that Fye failed to properly treat his wound. One nurse has testified that nothing was done despite the wound emitting a terrible odor. Another has testified that Fye didn’t react when informed that the tissue had turned black.

In addition, one of the country’s leading wound care experts, Dr. John Macdonald, has agreed to serve as an expert witness for Tarver, and his deposition testimony was highly critical of the care.

Macdonald, a  professor in the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine who established a clinic in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, testified that what happened to Tarver at Macon State Prison “would have never happened in Haiti.”

Fye, 65, has argued that her treatment was adequate because she twice prescribed antibiotics and had Tarver examined at a local emergency room. She also has testified that she did not notice the smell or the blackened tissue.

When contacted by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Fye declined to be interviewed, citing a directive from her superiors at Georgia Correctional HealthCare.

Read the AJC's full story on Fye here. 

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About the Author

Danny Robbins in an investigative reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.