FAYETTEVILLE -- A federal lawsuit claiming detainees at the Washington County Jail were given the drug ivermectin for covid without their knowledge or consent will go forward after a judge refused to throw the case out.
Dr. Robert Karas used detainees for an experiment of his own using a drug that wasn't approved for the purpose, U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks said Thursday.
Plaintiffs in the case include Edrick Floreal-Wooten, Jeremiah Little, Julio Gonzales, Thomas Fritch and Dayman Blackburn. The case was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union last year against Karas, Karas Correctional Health, former Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder and the Washington County Detention Center.
"The incarcerated individuals had no idea they were part of a medical experiment," Gary Sullivan, legal director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a news release Friday. "Sheriff Helder and Dr. Karas routinely mischaracterized the fundamental nature of plaintiffs' claims in their request for dismissal by refusing to mention the most significant allegations in the complaint."
The lawsuit contends detainees were given ivermectin as early as November 2020 and didn't become aware of what the treatment was until July 2021.
Ivermectin is an FDA-approved drug to address parasitic infestations such as intestinal worms and head lice and some skin conditions, such as rosacea. It isn't -- and wasn't at the time -- approved to treat covid-19.
Brooks said in a written opinion Karas began conducting his own research and hypothesized the drug ivermectin could be an effective treatment for covid-19.
Karas prescribed ivermectin to two sets of test subjects. The first set was composed of people who sought out Karas's services at his private medical clinic and agreed to take ivermectin as part of an experimental treatment for covid-19, Brooks noted. The second set was composed of detainees who were incarcerated at the jail.
"The inmates received Dr. Karas's treatment protocol for covid-19, but did not know it included Ivermectin," Brooks wrote. "Dr. Karas and his staff falsely told the inmates the treatment consisted of mere 'vitamins,' 'antibiotics,' and/or 'steroids.' Critically, the inmates had no idea they were part of Dr. Karas's experiment."
Since the detainees were never told their covid "treatments" contained ivermectin, they were never warned about the drug's side effects, Brooks said. In addition, Karas hypothesized large doses of ivermectin would be most effective in combating covid-19.
The problem, however, was the FDA only approved a dosage of 0.2 mg/kg to treat worms, according to Brooks. Karas ultimately prescribed lower doses of ivermectin to his clinic patients and higher doses to his imprisoned patients.
"At first reading, it would seem highly unlikely -- even implausible -- that a doctor would have dosed his incarcerated patients with an experimental drug more aggressively than his private patients, but plaintiffs point to proof in their jail medical records," Brooks wrote.
Fritch was dosed without his knowledge with 2.75 times the amount of ivermectin required to treat a parasitic infestation, Brooks wrote. Floreal-Wooten was secretly dosed with 3.4 times the approved dosage of ivermectin and Blackburn was dosed with 6.3 times the approved dosage.
"Again, these plaintiffs were suffering from covid-19, not parasites," Brooks wrote.
When detainees complained about side effects, they were told it was normal, according to the opinion.
"Dr. Karas documented his Ivermectin experiments on social media. He admitted on his clinic's Facebook page the voluntary participants in his 'clinic regimen' received lower doses of Ivermectin as compared to his unwitting 'jail patients,'" Brooks wrote.
Eventually, the experiments became the subject of both local and national news, Brooks noted. According to plaintiffs, it was only then medical staff attempted to obtain retroactive consents to medical treatment from the detainees, including for the use of ivermectin.
Examining the case
In his discussion of the case, Brooks said the detainees have stated plausible claims under multiple legal theories against each of the defendants. Brooks called a defense argument that detainees weren't forced to take the medication because they voluntarily swallowed the pills "absurd."
Brooks said the courts haven't hesitated to find that, where the human research subjects weren't told they were participating in an experiment and/or the government conducted the experiments knowing they had no therapeutic value, the subject's constitutionally protected right to life and/or liberty had been violated.
"Separately, the court finds that the facts in the amended complaint, if true, shock the conscience," Brooks wrote.
Brooks said there's a plausible due process claim against the clinic, a corporation acting under color of state law that adopted an unconstitutional policy of medicating covid-19 positive inmates with high dosages of ivermectin without their knowledge. Brooks also found plausible claims Helder knew or should have known Karas was performing ivermectin experiments on detainees without their knowledge because of Karas' social media postings and he approved, condoned or turned a blind eye to this violation of their due process rights.
Brooks found Karas isn't entitled to qualified immunity as a defense because he and his clinic had sought and won a county contract to provide health care to hundreds of detainees at the jail over many years at a cost of more than $1.3 million a year.
Brooks said the detainees have stated a plausible claim for battery in Karas intentionally concealed the details of a treatment in order to induce a captive audience to take a particular drug for his own professional and private aims.
The Washington County Quorum Court in February 2022 approved a resolution praising Karas for his treatment of detainees and staff during the covid pandemic, saying "the numbers and effects of the virus have been largely exaggerated" with an estimated death rate of 0.5% in the U.S.
The resolution says there have been more than 850 cases of the infection in the jail with no deaths. The Quorum Court voted 9-4 to endorse the resolution.
Then-Justice of the Peace Patrick Deakins, now Washington County judge, sponsored the resolution supporting Karas.
"I don't want this to be a debate about certain treatments," Deakins said. "I want you to know how proud of you we are."
At the same meeting, the Quorum Court voted to reject the resolution "supporting the principle of informed consent to medical treatments."
A trial in the case is set for Aug. 21.
Motion for judgment on the pleadings
A party's request to the court to rule in his/her favor based on the pleadings on file, without accepting evidence, as when the outcome of the case rests on the court's interpretation of the law. A function of a motion for judgment on the pleadings is to dispose of baseless claims or defenses when the formal pleadings reveal their lack of merit. A motion for judgment on the pleadings is the proper procedure when all of the material allegations of fact are admitted in the pleadings and only questions of law remain. When the pleadings do not resolve all factual issues, judgment on the pleadings is inappropriate.