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Suit Charges Jailed Alabama Man's Ulcer Ignored Until He Died

Phillip Anderson's family says jailers accused him of faking his pain.
Image: Phillip Anderson
The family of Phillip Anderson has filed a federal lawsuit charging Alabama jail officials ignored his pleas for medical help until he died of a perforated ulcer.Phillip Fikes

The family of an Alabama man killed by a perforated ulcer while locked up for missing a child-support hearing has filed a federal suit alleging guards and medical staff at the jail ignored his screams of pain for a week.

Phillip David Anderson, 49, a father of four, was unable to keep down any food while he was held at the Tuscaloosa County Jail, the lawsuit charges. His stomach was distended when he was finally rushed to the hospital, where he died on the operating table, medical records obtained by the family show.

"Defendants rejected or belittled Mr. Anderson's constant begging for medical attention," the complaint says. "His screams in excruciating agony from his serious medical condition were met with demands that he keep quiet, or stop faking and malingering."

Image: Phillip Anderson
The family of Phillip Anderson has filed a federal lawsuit charging Alabama jail officials ignored his pleas for medical help until he died of a perforated ulcer.Phillip Fikes

Anderson's son is suing his father's jailers, the county and the federal government, which funds the non-profit Whatley Health Services, which administers medical care at the facility.

"I just feel like they didn't care," said the son, Phillip Fikes, 31. "I hope and pray no one else has to go through what we went through."

Tuscaloosa Sheriff Ron Abernathy, who oversees the jail and is named as a defendant, declined to comment and referred all calls to county attorney Robert Spence, who said he could not provide any information about the case but added that "the jail staff probably acted appropriately."

Officials at Whatley, which is not named as a defendant in the suit, did not respond to requests for comment on the suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

According to the complaint, Anderson was in a car with his daughter when they were stopped at a roadblock, where officers discovered he had an outstanding contempt of court warrant in a child support case from 2013.

He was arrested and transferred to the Tuscaloosa jail, where he vomited the first meal he ate and was unable to eat again or empty his bowels, the lawsuit says.

The family's lawyer, David Schoen, said that as Anderson's condition deteriorated, other inmates called his relatives on his behalf to ask them to get help. When relatives called the jail, they were told Anderson was fine, Schoen said.

On Feb. 15, 2015, Anderson's condition deteriorated rapidly and he collapsed in the arms of fellow inmates who were helping him to the restroom, the complaint says. After attempts to revive him at the jail failed, he was taken to the hospital, still handcuffed, the court documents say.

Hospital records say Anderson was in "extreme condition" with a "massively distended" abdomen when he arrived. When attempts to resuscitate him in the emergency room failed, he was rushed to the OR.

Doctors opened him up and discovered a perforated duodenal ulcer. "He expired in the operating suite due to intractable shock," the medical examiner wrote in an autopsy report that said the ulcer was the cause of death.

"He simply could not survive the poison that ran through his system from the duodenal ulcer that had perforated at the jail," the lawsuit says. "Defendants subjected Mr. Anderson to nothing less than a slow sadistic torture that led to his death."

A picture of a young Phillip Anderson.
A picture of a young Phillip

Fikes said that when the family arrived at the hospital — after being alerted by other inmates — a deputy told them that Anderson was just having some stomach trouble and would be fine. Minutes later, a doctor emerged to break the news that he would not make it, he said.

"I was thinking it was a dream," said Fikes.

He said his father had served in the Army reserves and worked in a lab but was doing painting and construction work before he died. "He was a real joyful person to be around and it's sad he's gone," he said, adding that the family held a celebration in August on what would have been his father's 50th birthday.

In addition to Abernathy, the suit names three of his underlings in the sheriff's department as defendants. The federal government is also named because it funds Whatley.