Suit filed over woman’s ‘avoidable’ death at Gwinnett jail

On the morning of Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015, Denise Gertrude Forte missed breakfast. She’d been at the Gwinnett County jail for more than a year, and deputies knew that was unusual.

The 53-year-old, a woman with a history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and severe coughing fits, was ultimately found shivering in her cell. She said she “hurt all over,” and was examined by a nurse. The nurse found she had resting heart rate that was much too high.

Forte was given a “cold protocol” — Tylenol, an antihistamine, an expectorant — and a promise to see a doctor on Monday.

She’d die before she got the chance — and a lawsuit filed this month alleges that her death was a product of negligence.

“This was such an avoidable, preventable death,” Mark Begnaud, the Atlanta attorney who filed the suit, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week.

‘An avoidable, preventable death’

Filed in Gwinnett County State Court on behalf of Forte’s adult daughter, who is currently serving in the U.S. Navy, the lawsuit names Corizon Health, the jail’s private health care provider, and several others as defendants: Sheriff Butch Conway, a doctor and three nurses among them.

It claims the pneumonia that took Forte’s life should have been caught sooner, and that the decision to deny her more immediate care was the result of a policy “that minimized expenses and maximized profits for Corizon.”

When Forte was booked into the Gwinnett County jail on drug charges in January 2014, she already had COPD. And, in the weeks prior to her death, she repeatedly told health providers her cough was worsening and producing a “thick gray mucus,” according to the suit.

On the day after she was found shivering in her cell, Forte reported having chest pain and put in another request to be “taken back to medical.” A nurse declined the request, the suit says.

Forte died three hours later.

“Looking at the facts here,” Begnaud said, “anyone who would have presented with the symptoms that this lady did at a doctor’s office, or a hospital, or even a properly run detention center, would have immediately been seen by a doctor.”

Martha Harbin, director of external affairs for Corizon, said she was unable to comment directly on pending litigation or any patient’s medical history. But she denied that any actions Corizon providers may have taken were profit driven.

“One of the greatest misconceptions about our company is that we somehow benefit from providing lower quality care,” Harbin said in an email. “To the contrary, what makes good medical sense and good business sense is excellent and proactive preventative care – intervening early to treat conditions before they become serious and more costly to treat.”

A spokeswoman for the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s office said she could not comment on pending litigation.

'The best possible medical care’

Brentwood, Tennessee-based Corizon Health is the country’s largest for-profit provider of correctional health services, serving 301 facilities in 22 states. It’s partnered with the Gwinnett County jail since 1997, according to its website.

Corizon has been the subject of controversy in recent years, both in Georgia and elsewhere.

Last summer, officials in Chatham County opted not to renew the company's contract to provide services at the local jail, citing multiple lawsuits and accusations of poor care. In October, Fulton County chose not to renew its contract with Corizon. For more than a year, the county's chief jailer had called the company's care "inadequate." 

In 2014, a Corizon nurse at the Gwinnett County jail was arrested after allegedly arranging sexual encounters with an inmate. An inmate at the Gwinnett jail also died last month after a "medical emergency." The sheriff's office has denied the inmate's family's claims that he wasn't fed properly.

The suit filed over Forte’s death asks for a jury trial and for unspecified damages to be awarded for Forte’s “physical, mental and emotional pain, suffering and trauma.”

“… It is important to emphasize that the existence of a lawsuit is not necessarily indicative of quality of care or any wrongdoing,” Harbin, the Corizon spokeswoman, said in her statement to The AJC. “Our doctors and nurses work every day in extremely difficult settings to provide the best possible medical care for the patients in our care.”