Prisoners who are incarcerated in jails or prisons are stripped of many of the rights to which the rest of us are entitled. However, that does not mean they can be treated cruelly or that their health needs should be given no consideration.
Under the Eighth Amendment, prisoners have the right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and that includes deliberate indifference to their medical needs. The question will be whether the jail or prison staff disregarded the need or risk by failing to take reasonable measures to address that need, and that failure to take action resulted in harm to the prisoner.
This is what was alleged in Heard v. Tilden, a case recently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
The case involves a prisoner who for 20 years suffered inguinal hernias, which are painful hernias located in the groin. His imprisonment began in 1995. At that time, he had already been diagnosed with a painful hernia. Five years later, he was diagnosed with a second hernia, on the other side of his groin. Outside doctors at that time concluded he would need surgery on both hernia sites.
However, the Department of Corrections, which was responsible for his medical care, stalled. For seven years, these hernias went untreated. Finally, in May 2007, the prisoner required emergency surgery.
By then, he had filed the first of his two lawsuits claiming the prison had been deliberately indifferent by failing to authorize surgery sooner. Although he was unsuccessful in his case directly against the employees, the case against the prison itself was later settled for $275,000. As part of the settlement, plaintiff agreed to release the prison and its doctors from liability.
The settlement language originally contained language that would release the prison from all current and future claims. However, plaintiff crossed a line through the phrase “and may result in the future.” He initialed the line and his attorney told staffers he wouldn’t sign the document after those words were taken out. The idea was that he would not release them from continuing to behave with deliberate indifference in treating his condition, therefore making it worse.
The settlement was finalized.
Some time after, plaintiff was diagnosed with a recurrent hernia, caused by delaying the surgery for so long. Another surgery was required in 2013.
He sued again. He alleged the prison and its doctors had again delayed surgery. He stated the release of liability for past claims didn’t release the prison for deliberate indifference related to his recurrent hernia.
The prison responded by pointing to the release, but then also asserted they were precluded from liability by both claim and preclusion. Although the district court granted summary judgment to the defense, the federal appeals court vacated, with justices saying they were “not convinced” by defense argument.
In its legal reasoning, the court stated the release as it was executed cannot mean the prison was free to ignore prisoner’s recurrent hernia as it continued to worsen over time.
If you are a Florida prisoner who has suffered personal injury as a result of prison staff deliberate indifference to your health needs, contact our offices today.
If you have been injured in an accident, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7777 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.
Heard v. Tilden, Jan. 11, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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