Being a wrongful death lawyer at Mishkind Kulwicki Law Co., L.P.A. means that I read about cases that pertain to my area of the law. And most recently I was reading about a recent case where the family of a deceased prison inmate filed a wrongful death lawsuit over the death of the prisoner from meningitis, a brain infection. Prison malpractice lawsuits present additional challenges that are not faced in already challenging medical malpractice lawsuits.
The case in question arose from the sound of a detainee in a detention center who was in custody for probation violation. She contracted meningitis. A variety of different bacteria, viral and fungal infections can cause meningitis. The infection leads to inflammation of the outer coating of the brain, called the meninges, resulting in encephalopathy and brain damage. Sometimes, brain damage results in neurologic disorders like cerebral palsy, amputation or stroke symptoms. In other instances, death results. The key to treatment was early diagnosis and early treatment. Any delay in diagnosis or delay in treatment can cause a worsening of symptoms, including death.
In a prison setting, constitutional standards require that prisoners be treated humanely. Cruel, sadistic and unsafe treatment of inmates penalizes the inmate in a way that goes beyond the court’s sentence to incarceration. Withholding medical treatment subjects the inmate to cruel and unusual punishment, which is a constitutional violation.
Though states’ laws vary, most states enjoy some degree of immunity. States, however, are only entitled to qualified immunity, meaning that exceptions to immunity apply. In most states, when a prisoner files suit against the state for personal injury or death resulting from the withholding of medical treatment, delayed diagnosis or delayed treatment, the lawsuit must be filed in the Court of Claims. In the Court of Claims, the facts of the case are heard by a judge, rather than a jury. These judges are often political appointees who hold a bias in favor of their employer, the state. This bias can result in many unfavorable rulings, including defense verdicts and low damage awards.
Another challenge posed by prison inmate lawsuits arising out of negligent medical care, is the inherent bias against convicted criminals. The judge hearing the case will naturally want to know what the inmate has been convicted of. The nature of the inmate’s crimes will naturally play a factor in whether there is an award and, if so, how much the award will be. For example, a murderer, rapist or pedophile is less likely to recover than, say, someone who is in prison on drug charges.
The final challenge posed by lawsuits brought by prisoners or their families for wrongful death or medical negligence arising out of improper medical treatment is that a different standard applies. In general malpractice medical malpractice cases, the standard is whether the treating physician or nurse fell below accepted standards of medical or nursing care in the course of providing treatment. However, in a prison setting, the prisoner must prove that the prison guards or jail administration consciously disregarded the patient’s safety. This is much more challenging burden for a medical malpractice lawyer to overcome.