Court Approves $1.25 Million Settlement for Family of Deceased Prisoner Francisco Castaneda

Court Approves $1.25 Million Settlement for Family of Deceased Prisoner Francisco Castaneda

Francisco Castaneda

Settlement is with two California medical employees; family’s total recovery in case is $3.2 million.

A federal judge in Los Angeles yesterday approved a $1.25 million settlement in the long-running case filed by the family of the late Francisco Castaneda against two California medical employees who failed to ensure that Castaneda got the care he urgently needed for a cancerous penile lesion.

The plaintiffs alleged that the two state medical employees, Dr. Robert Mekemson and nurse practitioner Susan Pasha, had violated Castaneda’s constitutional right to adequate medical care by showing “deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.” Castaneda had been in the custody of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for four months, from December 2005 through March 2006.

This settlement brings an end to the litigation on Castaneda’s behalf, more than eight years after the first of many state and federal medical professionals entrusted with his care failed to diagnose and treat his cancer. Soon after Castaneda arrived at California’s North Kern State Prison, Dr. Andrew Leong requested that Castaneda receive a urology consult and biopsy “ASAP,” within one to two weeks, to rule out penile cancer. Mekemson, the acting Chief Medical Officer for the facility, denied the urgent request because Castaneda was scheduled to be transferred to another state facility.

“Dr. Mekemson’s denial of the urgent request to diagnose Castaneda’s lesion was a blatant violation of state policy, showing a ‘pass the buck’ mentality that Castaneda would become somebody else’s problem when transferred,” said Public Justice Managing Attorney Adele Kimmel. Kimmel has been an attorney for the plaintiffs, along with Conal Doyle of Doyle Law in Beverly Hills, Calif., a member of Public Justice’s Board of Directors.

After Castaneda was transferred to R.J. Donovan State Prison, he encountered the same indifference to his medical needs. Though Pasha requested the same urgent course of action as Leong, she failed to follow up to ensure that Castaneda received the biopsy and urology consult, and ordered antibiotics for him even after ruling out any condition treatable by antibiotics.

Castaneda was transferred to federal immigration detention on March 26, 2006, where he remained for nearly 11 months. His lack of diagnosis and treatment there was the subject of separate claims against the federal government. After released from federal custody in February 2007, he sought medical care in Los Angeles. A biopsy revealed the cancer that had spread to other organs. His penis was amputated in an effort to save his life, but it was too late. Castaneda died in February 2008 at age 36.

The $1.25 million settlement will be paid by the State of California to Castaneda’s sole heir, his daughter Vanessa, and to his estate, represented by sister Yanira.

The plaintiffs recovered a total of $3.2 million in this case, including a $1.95 million settlement with the federal government in 2011.

“What should concern the public most about this case is how somebody with such an urgent medical need could be so egregiously neglected,” Kimmel said. “Unfortunately, this case is emblematic of a systemic problem with the quality of medical care in prisons and immigration detention facilities across the country.”

There is hope for detainees, however. Kimmel said the federal immigration detention system has already changed its medical protocols in response to this and a related class action, using Castaneda’s case as a “poster child for what not to do.” She hopes that California will eventually follow suit, and sees these kinds of cases as a key part of crucial reform to federal and state systems.

“All too often, these agencies won’t provide even minimally adequate medical care to prisoners unless a court orders them to do so,” Kimmel said. “They spend as little money as possible on medical care, if they can get away with it.

“Civil lawsuits play a crucial role in forcing governments to provide decent medical care to prisoners.”

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