Federal judge says it’s plausible that Karas experimented on Washington County jail detainees, refuses to dismiss lawsuit over ivermectin

Prisoners used in medical experiment, federal judge says

A sign for the Washington County sheriff's office and detention center, the county jail, is seen in Fayetteville in this Aug. 27, 2021 file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
A sign for the Washington County sheriff's office and detention center, the county jail, is seen in Fayetteville in this Aug. 27, 2021 file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FAYETTEVILLE -- A federal lawsuit claiming detainees at the Washington County jail were given the drug ivermectin for covid-19 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 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 jail.

"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 that 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.

Brooks said in a written opinion that Karas began conducting his own research and hypothesized that 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' 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 made up of detainees 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 that large doses of ivermectin would be most effective in combating covid-19.

The problem, however, was that the FDA only approved a dosage, based on the weight of the patient, of 0.2 milligrams per kilogram, 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 local and national news, Brooks noted. According to the plaintiffs, it was only then that medical staff attempted to obtain retroactive consent to medical treatment from the detainees, including for the use of ivermectin.

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-positive inmates with high doses of ivermectin without their knowledge. Brooks also found plausible claims that 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 that 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 alleging that 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.

In February 2022, the Washington County Quorum Court 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 a resolution "supporting the principle of informed consent to medical treatments."

A trial in the case is set for Aug. 21.

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