SEBASTIAN COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — After a Sebastian County jail inmate’s family filed a lawsuit over his death while in custody, one of the defendants has filed a reply denying any wrongdoing.

Larry Eugene Price Jr., 50, died on August 29, 2021 after spending a little over a year in Sebastian County Jail where he was found unresponsive, lying in a pool of water and urine. The lawsuit states that an autopsy from the Arkansas Medical Examiner’s office ruled acute dehydration and malnutrition as his manner of death.

Price’s family is suing the private for-profit healthcare corporation, Turn Key Health Clinics, LLC; Sebastian County; Turn Key’s Chief Mental Health Officer; Jawaun Lewis; Nurse Christeena Ferguson and 20 correctional officers.

“Necessary health care for serious mental conditions need to be addressed for people in jails and prisons,” said Hank Balson. Balson is a lawyer with Budge & Heipt Law Firm which is representing Price’s family.

Price was arrested in August 2020 after having a mental health episode at the Fort Smith Police Department.

“Within a day or two, he had a screening and that screening identified that he had a need for an urgent referral to mental health,” said Balson.

He said Lewis prescribed Price medication after he was deemed “actively psychotic.”

“Sometimes Larry took the medication. Sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he refused, and that’s noted in his chart,” he said.

Balson said Lewis followed up about three months later and when he saw that Price wasn’t taking his medication, he discontinued it. It’s an action that he said led to Price’s deterioration.

“He didn’t make any effort to find out why isn’t Larry taking his medication every day as prescribed,” he said.

The lawsuit says the second Turn Key employee listed, Christeena Ferguson, was a nurse involved in Price’s care starting in January 2021.

“She was informed that Larry was eating his feces, drinking his urine,” said Balson. “She went and saw him and it was immediately clear to her that he was losing weight.”

The lawsuit says Price had already lost 35 lbs. by this point. Balson said Ferguson told the jail guards to start a food and fluid log to monitor what Price was intaking, something he said was done sporadically.

“Ms. Ferguson, from what we could tell, never followed up,” he said. “She never checked back with the guards to look at those reports. She never reported what was going on to a higher level medical provider.”

Turn Key Health Clinics filed a response to the suit in the Western District of Arkansas federal court in Fort Smith on February 9. The response denied nearly all allegations.

“Defendant is without sufficient information to form a belief as to the truth of the allegations related to the circumstances surrounding Mr. Price’s arrest, bail, or the status of the criminal charges against him during his detention at the Sebastian County Detention Center;
therefore, such allegations are deemed denied. Defendant denies all remaining allegations.”

Turn Key Health Clinics, answer to plaintiff’s complaint, February 9

The filing did acknowledge that Turn Key medical staff “worked with detention staff to monitor Mr. Price’s food and fluid intake on multiple occasions during his detention,” but it denied that any Turn Key staff “were ever aware that Mr. Price had ‘grossly insufficient food and water
intake'” or that they provided improper care to him.

The response also denied ignoring Price’s medical condition or that Turn Key medical staff were aware that his condition had deteriorated at any time. The lawsuit claims that Price was a well-nourished man who weighed 185 pounds when he was arrested on August 19, 2020, but EMTs and hospital personnel at Mercy Hospital estimated his weight to be 90 lbs. at the time of his death, based on his appearance.

The filing added that “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.” Turn Key further denied “any duty of care for care and treatment for any mental health crises or mental health services beyond psychiatric clinical services owed to any inmates housed at the Sebastian County Detention Center, including Mr. Price.”

The lawsuit stated that Price had an IQ of under 55 and that he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. The family stated in the lawsuit that the defendants listed above violated Price’s Fourteenth Amendment rights and engaged in medical negligence and a violation of correctional standards.

KNWA/FOX24 also received a statement from the Sweet Dewberry Hubbard, PLC law firm, which is representing Turn Key Health Clinics.

“Turn Key is aware of the lawsuit filed by the Estate of Larry Price, Jr. When Turn Key files its answer to the complaint, it will clarify the allegations against the company and its employees. As a point of necessary clarification, Turn Key was not the company contracted by Sebastian County to provide mental health evaluations/assessments and crisis management at the Sebastian County Detention Center at any point during Mr. Price’s last incarceration. Sebastian County initially contracted with Turn Key to provide eight hours a week of case management and service as a clinical liaison between Turn Key’s psychiatrist and the local community health providers, however, effective January 1, 2020, Sebastian County amended its contract with Turn Key to eliminate the clinical liaison position, and all crisis management and mental health evaluations/assessments were to be contracted by Sebastian County and performed by an independent community mental health provider, not by Turn Key.”

Sweet Dewberry Hubbard, PLC

Balson said Turn Key’s actions are a violation of the 14th Amendment.

“Even if it’s caused by mental illness, they can’t ignore the physical consequences of Larry’s mental illness and that’s what they did,” he said.

The court ordered both sides to provide a report of initial disclosures in the case by March 23. A trial was tentatively scheduled for January 8, 2024.

Last month, separate defendants RN Christeena Ferguson, Dr. Jawan Lewis and Sebastian County filed their own responses to the complaint, all denying most or all of the allegations.

Sebastian County Sheriff Hobe Runion released a video statement responding to the lawsuit in January. Click here to read our coverage of that response.