Former Inmate's Medical Nightmare Costs Colorado $8 Million | Westword

Former Inmate Christopher Tanner's Medical Nightmare Costs Colorado $8 Million

He contracted pneumonia in a Denver facility, and wound up losing most of his hands and his feet.
A recent photo of Christopher Tanner.
A recent photo of Christopher Tanner. Courtesy of Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, P.C.
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In 2021, Christopher Tanner sued six employees at the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, a state jail facility, over the outcome of a medical crisis he suffered on their watch. His suit claimed that the medical team's delayed and inept response to bacterial pneumonia that struck while he was incarcerated nearly killed him — and doctors ultimately wound up amputating most of his hands and feet.

Two years later, the Colorado Department of Corrections has agreed to pay $8 million to settle the complaint — and Tanner finds the decision appropriate.

"I'm glad that Colorado has ultimately taken responsibility for the dismissiveness of the medical staff in regard to my need for help," he says. "I think that the majority of the public that have no experience with the criminal justice system would be shocked to learn how incarcerated people are often treated."

The settlement, which was approved September 20 by the State Claims Board, is among the highest in Colorado for a case involving an incarcerated person's accusations of shoddy health care. The total appears to be second only to the $11 million verdict a 2014 jury awarded to Ken McGill over delayed treatment for a stroke while in custody at a facility in Jefferson County.

Still, Anna Holland Edwards of Denver-based Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, P.C., who represents Tanner in conjunction with co-counsel Matt Laird of Denver's Thomas, Keel & Laird, LLC, doesn't want the takeaway from the case's resolution to be entirely about dollars and cents. "Settlements like this prove that people do care about these kinds of abuses," she says.

Tanner has a history of mainly minor criminal offenses, including theft, that Holland Edwards connects to his being hooked on heroin. Because of his addiction and short sentence (only a few months in length), he was sent to the Denver Diagnostic and Reception Center in January 2020 so that he could receive drug treatment while serving his time.

That March, however, "Mr. Tanner woke up with a fever of over 105 degrees," Holland Edwards recaps. "He began begging to go to the hospital, and the nurses who were going in to see him seemed to really think he should go to the hospital, too. But they were overruled by higher-ups over and over again."

At the time, Holland Edwards continues, "the prison system was really worried about COVID," which hit the state hard that month and quickly began running rampant — but hadn't yet started spreading in Colorado Department of Corrections facilities. "Only a very few people were willing to even go in to see him, and the ones who did saw that he needed hospitalization. But instead, they only gave him Tylenol and an IV, which doesn't treat bacterial pneumonia."

As a result, Tanner "kept getting worse and worse," Holland Edwards says. "He was passing out and basically became non-verbal." His main caretaker during the twelve-hour period during which his condition cratered was "his cellmate, who was locked in with him," she adds. "He had to hold up the IV bag. He had to carry Chris downstairs when he got an X-ray. The whole time, Chris thought he was dying — and he very nearly did."

To make matters worse, Tanner says, his loved ones weren't immediately informed of his situation.

"When I was finally transferred to the hospital, despite the DOC website stating a policy assuring family notification in such a situation, DOC made no attempts to contact anyone in my family," he notes.

Indeed, Debby Tanner, Chris's wife of 23 years, didn't learn he had been admitted to an area hospital until he'd been there for three days, and then the individuals who reached out to her were a social worker and a nurse in the intensive-care unit rather than a Department of Corrections staffer. According to Tanner, they called to let her know that his physicians didn't expect him to pull through and encouraged her to get permission from prison officials to say goodbye.

Ultimately, Tanner beat the odds — but the cost of survival was high. The medications he received essentially caused most of his fingers and toes to die. In the end, his entire right hand was amputated, as well as most of his left hand and the front section of both his feet.
Photos of Christopher Tanner's hands and feet prior to amputation.
Courtesy of Holland, Holland Edwards & Grossman, P.C.
None of these surgeries should have been necessary. "One of the hardest parts was hearing expert opinions of doctors that reviewed my case — hearing them state that if I had gotten the level of care that I needed, I would not have lost my hands and feet," Tanner reveals.

Today, Tanner's life "is a lot smaller than it was," Holland Edwards points out. "He wasn't supposed to be in jail for very long, and he had job prospects and a job offer; he formerly worked as a surveyor, so he had skills. But now he often has to use a wheelchair. He can walk some, but he has intense pain anytime he has to stand up."

Nonetheless, "he's resilient and he works really hard," she says. "He likes to tinker with things, like fixing bikes, and he's figured out some workarounds. But with one arm that has no hand and the other hand only having a small portion of his fingers, he just fundamentally can't do many things he could do before. He's plagued by pain and the amputations get wounds. During his fight to regain the independence he has, he's had to be constantly medicalized."

Holland Edwards hopes the settlement, which led to the cancellation of a jury trial scheduled for March 2024, will allow Tanner "to explore other prosthetics and get a house that's retrofitted for him, so he can get around more easily, and get a car that he can more easily drive. But he wouldn't have needed any of these things if this hadn't happened to him."

According to Tanner, the events that led to the amputations should be put in a larger context. "DOC has the lives and well-being of so many people in its care," he says. "So many sons, daughters, mothers and fathers. Sadly, many on the staff see those individuals only as 'offenders.' Because of that, the kind of medical care and attention a person can reasonably expect from those caring for him is often not provided in the prison/jail setting."

He admits that he made mistakes. "I alone am responsible for the choices that I made that led to my incarceration," he says. "But I didn't hurt anyone, and I lost my freedom for a time and gained a criminal record as a consequence. I never expected something like this could happen, though."

The details are gruesome, but Tanner feels they should be widely shared. "I hope that by shining some light on my case, it might encourage a DOC staff member to take a moment next time and reconsider their actions before immediately disregarding a person in their care that may be in danger just because he is incarcerated," he says.

"No amount of money can give me back what I have lost," Tanner acknowledges. "But this settlement will afford me a real opportunity to begin finally putting this behind me."

Westword has reached out to the Colorado Department of Corrections for comment about the settlement. Click to read the original lawsuit filed on behalf of Christopher Tanner.
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