Liability for Prisoner and Detainee Medical Care

Jails and correctional facilities (local, state and federal) have an obligation under the law to provide adequate medical care to detainees and prisoners. A person who is in the custody and control of a detention facility obviously is not free to seek medical care and must rely upon the facility to provide adequate medical care. When they fail to do so, and that failure causes harm, liability may arise.

The duty owed to inmates depends on the nature of the claim as well as the status of the inmate or detainee.  For example, when improper or inadequate medical care is provided, a person who suffers harm may have a state law medical negligence claim as well as a federal constitutional claim. Under the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, convicted prisoners have a right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment.”  The United States Supreme Court has held that the Eighth Amendment bars “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners,” which would constitute the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.  Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976).

In cases involving pre-trial detainees, the obligation to provide medical care arises from the due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the failure to provide such care amounts to a form of punishment imposed on persons not convicted of a crime, which is impermissible.  Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520 (1979).

State law claims of medical negligence allow recovery where the medical care provided falls below the medical standard of care. In most states, an expert witness is required to initiate and pursue these state law claims.

While negligence alone is not sufficient for a federal civil rights claim, in some instances the failure to correct an allegedly known negligent mistake may be deemed “deliberate indifference”. In Spann v. Roper, No. 05-2721, 2006 U.S. App. Lexis 17480 (8th Cir.), the court found that a prison nurse did not act with deliberate indifference in making a prisoner take psychotropic medications actually prescribed for another prisoner, since that was at most a negligent mistake, but that a jury could find that she acted with deliberate indifference in leaving him in his cell without immediate medical attention for three hours after she realized her mistake.

Another issue that arises in prisoner lawsuits over medical care is that of delay in providing needed or requested treatment. In Plemmons v. Roberts, 439 F.3d 818 (8th Cir. 2006) Plaintiff alleged that jailers significantly delayed summoning an ambulance for a prisoner who was exhibiting “obvious” symptoms of heart attack, who had previously told them he was a heart patient.  The court held that such delay violated Plaintiff’s clearly established constitutional rights. 

The bottom line is that prisoner medical care cases may involve a number of complex legal issues.  If you or someone you know has suffered harm due to lack of medical care behind bars, getting the right lawyer to evaluate your potential claim from every angle and to identify every potential party that is liable for your injuries is important.  The lawyers at Jinks, Crow & Dickson, P.C. are willing and able to do that for you.

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