Wrongful death lawsuit

The Steele County Detention Center, as well as Sheriff Lon Thiele among several others, have been named as defendants in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a man who say that the man died because of their negligence. (Press file photo)

OWATONNA — Steele County Sheriff Lon Thiele, a nurse in the county, the county itself and the prisons in both Faribault and Rush City, as well as several doctors, have been named as defendants in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a man who say that the man died because doctors failed to diagnose his prostate cancer while he was in custody.

The medical malpractice/wrongful death suit claims that doctors did not diagnose until March 17, 2017 the cancer that eventually killed Elbert Larkins, who died on May 7, 2018. According to the lawsuit, filed in Hennepin County in September, the death of Larkins, who was incarcerated at the state prisons in Faribault and Rush City, as well as the Steele County Detention Center, could have been prevented if doctors would have diagnosed his cancer earlier.

“During the two years prior to his diagnosis, the doctors that examined Mr. Larkins missed numerous opportunities for urological referral that would have revealed Mr. Larkins’s prostate cancer much sooner,” the suit alleges. “In short, an earlier diagnosis would have likely prevented Mr. Larkins’s premature death from prostate cancer.”

The suit was brought by Breyana Larkins of Fridley, who was appointed as trustee for Elbert Larkins’ estate.

Also named in the suit were Dr. William Scheidt, a general surgeon; Dr. Jeffrey Felt, a rheumatologist; Drs. Virginia Mandac and Jerry Nelson, both family medicine physicians; and Leah Kent, a licensed practical nurse in Steele County, in addition to Sheriff Thiele. The suit also names the prisons in Rush City and Faribault, the Minnesota Department of Corrections as a whole, and current Department of Corrections commissioner Paul Schnell, as well as Steele County.

Elbert Larkins spent time behind bars in Rush City, Faribault and Steele County between 2014 and 2017.

According to the lawsuit, Larkins on numerous occasions and at all three facilities complained to medical personnel associated with the facilities that there was blood in his urine and his semen. Though the complaints should have prompted the doctors who treated him to refer Larkins to a urologist for further evaluation, they did not, the suit says.

“Such an evaluation would have led to a prostate exam and a prostate blood test which would have resulted in an earlier diagnosis of Mr. Larkins’s prostate cancer which was likely curable at the time,” the suit alleges.

The first time Larkins complained of blood in his urine and semen was in March 2015, according to the lawsuit, a full two years before his condition was diagnosed. Seven distinct times over the course of two years, Larkins complained of blood in his urine, and seven distinct times the doctors did not refer him out for a urological evaluation, the suit alleges.

“In February 2017, Mr. Larkins was unable to urinate at all and a catheter was placed,” the suit states. “Finally, in March 2017, urology was consulted, and a diagnosis of incurable metastatic prostate cancer was made, over two years after this diagnosis could and should have been made.”

The suit alleges negligence against Steele County and Sheriff Thiele. Larkins was an inmate at the Steele County Detention Center, being held for the Department of Corrections, from December 2015 through October 2016, according to the suit. The suit alleges specifically that when Larkins was transferred from Steele County back to the prison in Faribault on or about Oct. 13, 2016, Larkins’ medical records were not transferred with him, as required by law.

“Specifically, several records which showed Mr. Larkins complaining of blood in his urine and semen and urinary retention issues while at [the Steele County Detention Center] were never provided to Faribault personnel,” the suit alleges. “Due to this failure, Faribault corrections personnel were not provided vital information regarding Mr. Larkins’ medical condition that was needed to diagnose his prostate cancer at a much earlier date.”

In a joint response filed with the court by their attorney, Sheriff Thiele and Nurse Kent denied any misdeeds alleged by the Larkins estate, saying they “were not negligent or a direct and proximate cause of … alleged damages.” Furthermore, they say that “any injuries sustained by the Plaintiff were due to and caused by Plaintiff’s own conduct” and “were the result of Mr. Larkins’ natural disease processes, including but not limited to medical conditions that may have pre-existed his incarceration at Steele County Jail and/or resulted from Plaintiff’s own refusal to comply with recommendations of healthcare providers.”

The suit seeks more than $50,000 for expenses related to Larkins’ medical, funeral, burial and related expenses, as well as more than $50,000 for the “loss of support, advice, comfort, assistance, companionship, protection, counsel, guidance, aid, and future relationships and other contributions that Elbert Larkins would have provided to them had he lived.”

Jeffrey Jackson is the managing editor of the Owatonna People's Press. He can be reached at 507-444-2371 or via email at jjackson@owatonna.com

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