Defendants Fire Back in Lawsuit Over Man Who Starved to Death in Jail

A private healthcare firm and two employees sued in the death of Larry Eugene Price, Jr., a mentally ill man who allegedly starved to death because of staff and medical neglect over a year in an Arkansas county jail, say in court filings they were unaware of his deteriorating condition and that the company was not the healthcare provider for the jail during all of Price's incarceration.

In the filing, Turn Key Health Clinics also characterize Price, who was schizophrenic and had an IQ of 55, as combative and said he understood his medication regimen but he declined it.

"I think the evidence is going to show that there's just no deliberate indifference or negligence on the part of Turn Key or its staff," attorney Alexandra Ah Loy said in an interview Friday. Ah Loy, a partner at Oklahoma City-based Sweet Dewberry Hubbard, filed the suit on behalf of Turn Key, its psychiatrist Jawaun Lewis and nurse Christeena Ferguson. She said "the evidence is going to show that Turn Key has no liability."

In the filings late Thursday, the private medical provider to Sebastian County Detention Center, where Price was locked up, as well as Lewis and Ferguson denied culpability in Price's death or violations of his civil rights. The filings ask the federal lawsuit against them be dismissed.

Another defendant, Sebastian County, which runs the western Arkansas jail in the city of Fort Smith, has yet to formally respond to the suit, although the county sheriff, Hobe Runion, has previously made comments saying the allegations of severe neglect by jail and medical staff as Price, according to the suit, was allowed to waste away were not true.

"The records will show that Mr. Price had normal food and fluid intake when detention staff monitored and reported the same to Turn Key medical staff," the response from the company reads. The three defendants note that Price did show a "marked impact on (his) ability to function satisfactorily" at the jail," but denies that "any policies or procedures of Turn Key have any causal connection to Mr. Price's death...(or) any knowledge...Mr. Price was ever at imminent risk of harm prior to the time of his medical emergency on August 29, 2021," the day Price died at Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith.

Larry Eugene Price, Jr.
Autopsy Photo of Larry Eugene Price, Jr.
At left, Larry Eugene Price after a funeral following his father's 2008 death. At right, an autopsy photo of Price.

The responses also state that "any damages allegedly suffered by Mr. Price were caused by the voluntary assumption of the risk by Mr. Price...or contributed to by Mr. Price's own acts, conduct, or negligence." And it asserts the defendants were wrongly named in the lawsuit.

Asked whether Turn Key was assigning blame to Price for his starvation death, Ah Loy said Friday that "Turn Key and its employees are not blaming Mr. Price. We're just preserving our defenses by listing those in the affirmative defenses." Affirmative defenses are a one-shot deal in federal court, meaning if a defendant doesn't submit the possibility of needing the defense now, it loses that possibility during the life of litigation.

'Pointing the Finger at Everyone but Itself'

As Newsweek first reported, the lawsuit was filed January 13 in the Western District of Arkansas by the Seattle-based law firm Budge & Heipt PLLC. Attorney Erik Heipt filed the wrongful death and civil rights claim on behalf of Price's estate, saying Price entered jail August 19, 2020, weighing in at 185 pounds and was down to 90 pounds when weighed by EMS a year and 10 days later after being found lifeless in his cell.

An autopsy showed him at 121 pounds and that he died of acute dehydration and malnutrition. Heipt said the added weight came from fluids administered before Price was pronounced dead at Mercy.

"It looks like Turn Key has declined to take any responsibility for what happened to its patient and is pointing the finger at everyone but itself," Heipt said after reading the three filed responses.

Price, then 50, was arrested at the Fort Smith police station in downtown Fort Smith on August 19, 2020, after waving his finger like a gun and cursing at officers and those inside. He was charged with terroristic threatening in the first degree and taken to the Sebastian County Detention Center. A county judge set a low bond, $1,000, but Price, destitute, could not afford the $100 bail to get out.

Over the next year, he remained in solitary, confined to a single cell that was so flooded by the time he died, his feet had shriveled up. He was also covered in feces and urine, which he'd resorted to ingesting as he frequently ignored food delivered to him, according to the suit.

The suit further alleges that Lewis cut off Price's medications despite Price suffering "in the throes of his untreated psychosis." Antipsychotic medications were never re-administered to Price, whose weight continued to plummet, according to the lawsuit. The suit further states that despite the fact that Ferguson weighed him because he was"noticeably thinner," she did not take necessary steps to remedy his worsening condition.

Price "remained unmedicated and untreated, locked in a solitary cell, completely neglected by the Turn Key medical and mental health staff. He continued to engage in bizarre behavior — banging on walls, yelling nonsensically, throwing feces and trash, eating Styrofoam food cartons, and declining to leave his isolation cell for his one hour out," the federal suit states. "Moreover, Mr. Price was not consuming enough food or drinking enough water to sustain human life."

Denying Claims of Negligence

In the three filings, Turn Key and its employees (Ferguson is no longer employed there) say Price, whose weight fluctuated, was at times combative, but spoke coherently at intake and was seen by a Fort Smith emergency room doctor after jail and medical staff were told of rectal bleeding and a change in mental condition. But that doctor, who was not named, sent Price back to lock up after determining Price was fit to return and suffered from hemorrhoids.

The responses also note contracts with Sebastian County changed January 1, 2020, eliminating Turn Key as a liaison between its staff and another health provider — whom Ah Loy suspects was Forth Smith community mental health provider The Guidance Center. Guidance, according to the responses, is believed to have contracted with the Sebastian County Detention Center to provide mental health services and crisis management services to inmates housed at the jail. The center could not be immediately reached for comment.

Further, the filings deny that Price was refused the medications Olanzapine and Buspirone and state that medical and psychiatric help was in fact offered to Price, who would at times accept and other times refuse medications.

The Turn Key response states that the private company "denies that it or its personnel are guilty of any type of professional negligence, constitutional violation, or other wrongdoing, in the care and treatment of Mr. Price. Additionally, Defendant states that all care given to Mr. Price was at all times reasonable and within the applicable standard(s) of care and was not in indifference to Mr. Price's medical condition."

Turn Key's 37-page answer further denies "any policies or procedures of Turn Key have any causal connection to Mr. Price's death...Turn Key and its personnel were never aware of a change in Mr. Price's medical or mental health condition which placed him at increased risk of harm. Defendant further denies any knowledge on its part or on the part of its medical personnel that Mr. Price was ever at imminent risk of harm prior to the time of his medical emergency on August 29, 2021," the day Price, then 51, died.

Larry Eugene Price, Jr. with his brother
On left, Larry Eugene Price, Jr., with his younger brother, Rodney. "None of this makes sense," Rodney Price said of his brother's starvation death. Courtesy Erik Heipt

The response also states that Price was scheduled for transfer to Arkansas State Hospital on September 2 — four days after he died.

Ferguson, the nurse, could not be reached for comment. In her 36-page filing submitted by Ah Loy, she also denies "any allegations of negligence, deliberate indifference, or knowledge that Mr. Price had a deteriorating medical or mental health condition."

Among other things, Ferguson's response states "the records will show that Mr. Price had normal food and fluid intake when detention staff monitored and reported the same to Turn Key medical staff, that Turn Key medical staff were never aware that Mr. Price's food and fluid intake was not stable, and that Turn Key medical staff were never aware that Mr. Price's medical condition had deteriorated at any point in time during his incarceration."

Ferguson had no obligation to continue care for Price, or any inmate at the jail, after February 12, 2021, the date, according to her response, when her employment with Turn Key ended. The filing states Ferguson "denies any knowledge that Mr. Price was ever 'visibly emaciated' or at imminent risk of harm." And she denies she was "deliberately indifferent or negligent toward Mr. Price's medical condition...aware of Mr. Price's medical condition...(or) denied Mr. Price any medical or mental health care."

She also states that Price was combative with staff. In her response, Ferguson says "Mr. Price had a history of psychosis, auditory hallucinations, disordered thinking, combativeness, and violence toward jail and medical staff at the Sebastian County Detention Center, including that Mr. Price physically attacked one of Turn Key's nurses on September 9, 2020 and told her, 'Larry Price, Jr. is gonna kill you, b*tch.'"

Allegations Are 'Baseless and Uninformed'

Lewis, also in a 37-page legal response to the suit, says he tried on many occasions to give Price medical and mental help. "Mr. Price repeatedly refused care. Defendant denies the baseless and uninformed assumptions as to the "practices" within the Sebastian County Detention Center," his response states. Ah Loy said practices is essentially legal jargon for how the care of inmates at the jail is operated by the county and its partners or contractors.

The response goes on to say that "medical records speak for themselves and are replete with documentation of Mr. Price's refusals of care," and denies that improper care was afforded Price while Turn Key staff turned a blind eye to Price's suffering or deteriorating medical and mental state. Lewis and Turn Key deny they "were ever aware that Mr. Price's medical condition has deteriorated at any point in time."

In the filing, Lewis, who could not be reached for comment, denies that he was obligated to provide ongoing "psychiatric care to Mr. Price; instead, the psychiatric-patient relationship was terminated between Mr. Price and...Lewis on or around November 24, 2020, when Mr. Price refused his psychiatry appointment after months of non-compliance with psychiatric treatment. Turn Key further states that its medical personnel were never requested to provide psychiatric or mental health services to Mr. Price after that date."

Lewis, the reponse says, upheld the standards for care and always acted appropriately and constitutionally. As for whether Price was able to mentally comprehend his need for medications, Lewis in the response denies "Mr. Price was too mentally unstable to make his own medical decisions on August 21, 2020 (when Price was allegedly coherent and alert) and on August 27, 2020...Mr. Price was scheduled by the intake screening nurse to be seen in the Chronic Care Clinic, and...Mr. Price refused his Chronic Care Clinic appointment."

Lewis says that Price was referred to him the next day, August 28, by an employee of The Guidance Center.

Lewis did evaluate a few days later and found "Mr. Price was 'actively psychotic and unable to provide information,' and...charted his findings that Mr. Price was adequately groomed, had psychomotor agitation behavior, had a labile/fluctuating mood, had a broad affect, had pressured speech, had delusional thought processes/content, had poor insight and judgment, and had 'low engagement.'"

Eric Ferkenhoff can be reached at Find him on Twitter @EricFerk