As of January 2014, the Florida Department of Corrections reported there were an estimated 100,500 inmates housed in 55 state prisons. Tens of thousands more are housed at any given time in county jails, many not yet convicted but awaiting trial.

barbedwireThis group is not one to garner a great deal of public sympathy. However, inmates are legally entitled to receive adequate medical treatment. When they do not and the outcome of their medical condition is severely impacted as a result, this could be grounds for a civil lawsuit.

Our Fort Myers injury lawyers know these cases tend to be a bit more complicated because most usually involve liability not only of the medical providers, but also of the prison or jail staff. Medical malpractice claims arising out of such instances follow relatively the same track as for those on the outside; establishing the health care provider breached the acceptable standard of care for that field given the circumstances. However, it also requires inmates show prison officials treated the inmate with deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.

The standard of “deliberate indifference” requires proof that officials acted with reckless disregard to the substantial risk of harm to the prisoner. It’s a higher standard of negligence than might otherwise be required to proven. It rests on whether the official knew of the excessive risk of harm to the inmate and disregarded it by failing to take reasonable steps to obtain care for the inmate.

The recent case of Hahn v. Walsh, et al., before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, is one such case. The federal appellate court reversed a lower court’s decision granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant jailer and county-contracted medical provider.

According to court records, an inmate who was arrested and awaiting a bond hearing died while in custody after suffering from ketoacidosis. This is a serious complication of diabetes, stemming from failure to treat a person who makes little to no insulin on their own. It involves the bodily process of breaking down fat for fuel when there is not enough insulin, resulting in a buildup of toxic acids in the bloodstream.

The woman was arrested for aggravated domestic violence battery, and placed on suicide watch, as she revealed she was suicidal. She also told officers she was diabetic, but refused to reveal what medications she was on or sign a medical release so that staffers could obtain her medical records. However, staffers were made aware that in addition to mental illness, this woman also suffered from mental disability, and may not have been able to best make decisions for herself.

As her stay wore on over the course of the next several days, she was sporadically given insulin and only sporadically ate the meals provided to her. Officers are trained to recognize certain diabetic conditions such as hypoglycemia and hyperclycemia and to call immediately for medical assistance if necessary.

Officers characterized the woman as largely uncooperative, but she did occasionally agree to eat and allow nurses to give her insulin injections. On the third night, she became violently ill. Other inmates would later report they heard a woman begging for insulin medication. Early that morning, corrections officers noted her to be in “medical distress.” Her blood-sugar was 966. She was suffering from ketoacidosis, and there was significant swelling of her brain. Doctors later asserted she had been in diabetic ketoacidosis for hours. She died at the hospital later that day.

Her husband and son later filed a lawsuit on her behalf, specifically alleging Eighth Amendment violations to her basic right to receive adequate health care while incarcerated.

According to news reports, she was the sixth inmate who died in the course of two years at the same facility. Other deaths were attributed to suicide or drug overdoses, but even those call into question the competency of jail staff to handle such circumstances.

Here, the 7th DCA found that while the lower court had correctly dismissed the wrongful death lawsuit,  it erred in doing so with prejudice where plaintiffs had not produced sufficient evidence to permit claims against the sheriff and the jail’s medical contractor. The appellate court reversed on this point, allowing plaintiff’s the opportunity to re-file.

Some examples of inadequate medical care by prison or jail staffers might include:

  • A major delay or denial of access to medical personnel;
  • A denial of access to an appropriately qualified health care personnel;
  • Failure to inquire into facts necessary to make a professional judgment;
  • Failure to carry out medical orders.

If you are an injury victim, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Hahn v. Walsh, et al., Aug. 12, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Brouwer v. Sisters of Charity – Common Knowledge Exception in Medical Malpractice Litigation, Aug. 20, 2014, Fort Myers Injury Lawyer Blog