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Vt. Court: Contractor Must Defend Suit

Montpelier — A prison health contractor must defend the Vermont Department of Corrections against a lawsuit filed by the family of a woman who died in prison after she wasn’t given medication that she needed to treat a heart condition, the Vermont Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The high court ruled that Prison Health Services was bound by a $24 million contract with the state that required it to defend the department against any legal claims “involving negligence by both parties” as a result of the medical services it was contracted to perform.

“We conclude that the estate’s grievances arise from negligent conduct by both the State and PHS in its performance of contracted services. Thus, we hold that PHS has a duty to defend the state against these claims,” said the decision, written by Justice Marilyn Skoglund.

The case stems from the 2009 death of 23-year-old Ashley Ellis, of Castleton, who died two days after arriving at the Northwest State Correctional Facility in St. Albans. She wasn’t given the medication she needed, according to the decision, and there was a delay in performing CPR after she was found unresponsive because prison personnel couldn’t find a mouth guard.

Vermont Assistant Attorney General Mark Patane said Friday he was pleased with the decision.

“I think they got it right,” Patane said of the court. “They understood the issues.”

The attorneys for Prison Health Services and Ellis’s estate did not return calls Friday seeking comment.

Almost two years after Ellis’s death, her estate filed suit against the state and several state employees as well as Prison Health Services, which no longer provides health services in Vermont prisons.

Ellis’s estate settled its suit against Prison Health Services. The case against the state remains pending. Ellis, who began serving a 30-day sentence in August 2004, suffered from a life-threatening condition linked to dangerously low potassium levels as the result of an eating disorder, according to the decision.

The prison, which was understaffed at the time, was told of Ellis’s needs for a potassium supplement prior to her incarceration, the decision said, but there was none in stock and none was obtained.

Two days later, she was found unresponsive and the medical examiner determined her death was caused by a heart problem attributed to the lack of potassium.