MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — The attorneys for four Muskegon County Jail guards accused in the death of an inmate three years ago have asked a judge to dismiss the case.
They argue that it was the out-of-state company that provided medical care at the jail that caused the death of Paul Bulthouse, 39, not the guards.
Sgt. David VanderLaan and deputies Jamall Lane, Crystal Greve and Jeffery Patterson are awaiting trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter.
Bulthouse died in April 2019 after suffering repeated seizures in a close-observation cell.
Each guard will be tried separately in Muskegon County Circuit Court, according to court records, with the first starting on June 21.
The attorneys, however, have asked Circuit Judge William Marietti to dismiss the case, arguing that the state Attorney General should never have filed the charges and that a district judge should never have bound them over to stand trial.
The Attorney General has until May 17 to respond to the request.
The guards’ attorneys laid out their defense in recently filed court documents — accusing Wellpath, the Tennessee-based private company that provided health care at the jail, of causing the death through medical malpractice.
They say the doctor working for Wellpath, Dr. Joseph Natole, “completely missed Bulthouse’s addiction to benzodiazepine.”
The drug known more commonly as Klonopin is used to treat anxiety.
“It appears that Dr. Natole did not even read Bulthouse’s medical records, because if he had done so, then he would have been aware that Bulthouse had been taking heavy doses of Klonopin for a prolonged duration and concurrently abusing alcohol,” the attorneys wrote.
Instead, the doctor put Bulthouse on a five-day program for alcohol withdrawal, the attorneys claimed in court documents.
“Dr. Natole’s oversight, or minimization of Bulthouse’s substance use disorder, was grossly negligent,” the attorneys wrote.
Bulthouse started showing withdrawal symptoms 11 days after he was cut cold-turkey off of Klonopin, and suffered a grand mal seizure and died on the 12th day, the documents say.
“If medical had noted his benzodiazepine addiction and treated it correctly, then Bulthouse would not have died,” the attorneys alleged.
There was no way, they argued, that the guards could have known what was coming.
“The defendants, unlike Wellpath medical professionals, had no way to know that Bulthouse was at high risk for experiencing a life-threatening, benzopiazepine withdrawal induced, grand mal seizure twelve days after his incarceration,” the attorneys wrote.
The guards’ attorneys acknowledged that one of the guards, Deputy Patterson, witnessed a 12-second seizure, but say he immediately reported it to medical staff.
Bulthouse got no medical care after that.
They also put blame on other Wellpath workers, including an EMT who told guards Bulthouse was faking it after he started violently shaking during an escape attempt days before his death.
The attorneys compared the case to a jail deputy being assigned to watch guard over a prisoner being treated for Klonopin withdrawal at a hospital after the hospital had misdiagnosed the medical condition.
“One night the inmate begins acting strangely” in the hospital room. The guard reports it to a nurse, the nurse checks the inmate’s vitals and tells the guard the inmate is “stable.” Throughout the night, nurses continue to report he is stable.
“At some point during the night, the inmate has a massive seizure and the inmate dies,” the attorneys’ scenario continued.
“Who is responsible for this inmate’s death? The deputies? Or is it the doctor who did not properly assess and treat the inmate’s benzodiazpene addiction? Or was it the nurses who checked the inmate’s vitals and determined the inmate was in stable condition?” they asked.
“Surely, no one in their right mind would argue that the deputies should be held criminally liable for the inmate’s death,” the attorneys wrote.
Target 8 could reach neither Dr. Natole nor Wellpath for comment.
The attorneys also put blame on Healthwest, the Muskegon-based for-profit that the jail was paying to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment for inmates.
“Because Bulthouse refused to wear clothing and was naked, Healthwest’s medical doctors refused to see Bulthouse,” the attorneys wrote.
“Since Healthwest is supposed to handle all inmate’s pyschological, psychiatric and substance abuse issues, it is moronic that they have a policy to refuse treatment to an inmate who refuses to wear clothing … In fact, a refusal to wear clothing could be seen as a clinical indication that an inmate was having a mental health condition. Arguably, Healthwest’s policy caused a delay in Bulthouse’s treatment, and was a contributing factor in his death.”
The death led to out-of-court settlements for Bulthouse’s family — $2.4 million from the county and for an undisclosed amount from Wellpath.