People who are detained or incarcerated are not free to seek their own medical care. Because of this situation, the City or County who runs the jail or the Florida Department of Corrections is responsible for the medical care. The issue in these cases is whether the medical care is appropriate or whether the health care provider acted with deliberate indifference to a serious medical need. To be frank, jail and prison health care providers whether they are doctors, physicians assistants, nurse practitioners, or nurses are typically not the Ivy league trained professionals. When we dig deep into these health care providers background there is usually something that has driven them into correctional medicine.
Prisoners or detainees do not lose their right to bring a medical malpractice action out of the prison or jail system just because they are incarcerated or detained. However, in order to bring a case the negligence or medical malpractice has to be gross or significant because juries just don’t care for prisoner or detainee lawsuits. A prison or jail malpractice claim follows the same procedure as any other medical malpractice claim. In Florida, there are clear statutory rules set out in Chapter 766, Florida Statutes. The claimant or personal representative of the prisoner or detainee’s estate has to follow the dictates of the Medical Malpractice Act, which include the following:
Presuit investigation: During this time the prison malpractice lawyer gathers the medical evidence, reviews the documentation and hires a medical expert to render an opinion.
Affidavit of corroboration: The medical expert retained during the presuit investigation process prepares an affidavit stating that there is a reasonable basis to bring a medical malpractice claim based on documentation reviewed.
Notice of Intent: The prisoner serves the prospective defendants – the Florida Department of Corrections, the Sheriff in charge of the jail system, and/or the health care providers with a notice of intent setting forth the facts alleging medical negligence along with the affidavit of corroboration.
The problem with bringing a state law medical malpractice claim against the Florida Department of Corrections, a local jail, or a health care provider that is an employee of the State, City or County is a concept called sovereign immunity. Damages against a Florida State or Local Governmental Agency are capped at $200,000.
Prisoners and Jail Detainees have constitutional protections under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments when incarcerated or detained.
If the facts are egregious (bad) enough, it may be beneficial to pursue a constitutional as opposed to medical malpractice cause of action for two reasons: (1) the potential for punitive damages; and (2) the potential to have the defendant pay your attorney’s fees.
The United States Supreme Court explained the deliberate indifference to a serious medical need standard in the hallmark case of Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976). Under the constitution, a claim of inadequate medical care requires a showing of acts or omissions sufficiently harmful to evidence the deliberate indifference to a serious medical need or the unnecessary infliction of pain. A serious medical need is “one that has been diagnosed by a physician as mandating treatment or one that is so obvious that even a lay person would easily recognize the necessity for a doctor’s attention.” Hill v. DeKalb County Reg’l Detention Center, 40 F.3d 1176 , 1187 (11th Cir. 1994).
Deliberate indifference is not medical malpractice, negligence or neglect. Also, deliberate indifference is not simply a difference of opinion between an inmate and a healthcare provider regarding diagnosis and treatment.
The following are some factual scenarios that may support a claim of deliberate indifference to a serious medical need:
failing to timely treat broken bones after an injury or fight at the facility
failing to timely treat an emergency condition because the doctor or nurse believes the inmate is lying about the condition
discontinuing important medications because of cost
failing to recognize and treat a heart attack
failing to recognize and treat a severe asthma attack
failing to refer an inmate to a proper specialist for evaluation and/or treatment
If you have any questions about a potential prison/jail medical malpractice or deliberate indifference case, contact Guy S. DiMartino.