Community Government Police & Fire

State settles lawsuit following terminal cancer diagnosis for former inmate at Gig Harbor prison

Posted on February 1st, 2024 By:

The Washington state Department of Corrections agreed to a $9.9 million settlement with a former inmate diagnosed with terminal cancer after receiving inadequate medical care at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.

The Seattle Times reported the settlement on Tuesday, Jan. 30. 

Failure to perform follow-up

Paula Gardner, now of Tacoma, was in custody at the Gig Harbor prison in March 2019 when a screening showed her positive for carcinogenic human papillomavirus. HPV is a viral infection that can cause cancer if left untreated.

An ultrasound test in April 2019 detected a 1.4 centimeter growth in Gardner’s uterus, according to documents filed in King County Superior Court as part of the case. 

Doctors recommended follow-up examinations and tests. Yet “DOC failed to perform follow-up imaging or check her cervix for over 25 months,” according to the lawsuit.

Nobody told Gardner about the growth or the need for follow-up tests, the lawsuit says.

“Because the cancer was left unchecked for this period of time, it became advanced when it was otherwise treatable,” Gardner’s lawyers wrote. “It spread to her lymph nodes (Stage IC) and Paula has been informed she will never recover. Her diagnosis is terminal.”

The court filing notes that “the 5-year relative survival rate for cervical cancer diagnosed at an early stage is 92% per the National Cancer Institute.”  

DOC and cancer treatment

Gardner’s two sons, whose ages were not provided, were also party to the lawsuit. Gardner is 42 years old.

In a brief filed in December 2023 in response to the lawsuit, the state Attorney General’s Office acknowledged that “the healthcare provided to Ms. Gardner was a proximate cause of damages to her and her sons.” The Attorney General’s office represented the DOC in the case.

However, the brief also noted that “DOC is not the sole cause of her damages. Cancer is a proximate cause as well.”

A report from the Department of Corrections’ ombudsman, dated Jan. 14, 2021, affirms that the prison system has an ongoing problem with diagnosing and treating cancer patients in its care. The report details 11 cases, all in the same timeframe as Gardner’s case, in which male inmates’ cancer treatment was delayed.

At least one of those 11 patients died; doctors diagnosed another with a terminal case.

The 2021 report indicated that six of the received incorrect diagnoses from doctors while incarcerated. It also highlighted delays in scheduling appointments with outside specialists. 

Gardner released

According to the Seattle Times story, DOC released Gardner following her diagnosis. She is receiving palliative care in Tacoma. 

The Times story says Gardner began serving a 40-month sentence for burglary in 2019. Court filings indicate she was incarcerated by DOC for most of the period between 2011 and 2022, “except for a brief period in 2012 and from 2017 until early 2019”