State Negligence

Filing a Medical Negligence Claim Against Prison Officials

As discussed in our Sovereign Immunity post, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania generally cannot be sued for negligence or other types of torts which it or its employees cause. However, there is an important exception to this rule - the “medical professional” exception which allows prisoners to sue for injuries caused by the medical negligence of prison doctors, nurses, and other prison medical staff. 

To recover for medical negligence, a prisoner must be able to prove four elements: (1) A duty owed by the prison medical staff to him; (2) a breach of that duty by the medical staff; (3) a causal connection between the breach of duty and the injuries which the prisoner suffered; and (4) the amount of damages that resulted from the breach. Each of these four elements is discussed in more detail below: 

1. Duty. Even though a person is in prison, he still has a right to adequate medical care. Doctors and nurses who work in prisons have a legal duty to provide care that is consistent with the community standard. This means that, if a person has an issue that the medical community says must be addressed with corrective surgery, then that standard must be applied in prison as well. 

Prison medical staff also have a duty to inform the patient about his medical condition, what his test results show, and what the treatment plan for the condition is. While security concerns may justify not telling a prisoner everything; for example, the exact date that he will be sent to a specialist, prisoners have a right to be informed about what medical challenges they are facing. 

2. Breach. One of the most common issues that inmates face is needing serious or specialized care, but instead being given a few ibuprofen and denied surgery or physical therapy. In many instances, this violates the standard of care. 

Because the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections outsources its medical care responsibility to large corporations, there is an inherent conflict between saving money, and paying for the care that a prisoner requires. The attempt to save money may lead a doctor to not send an inmate out of the prison to a hospital for specialist examination or treatment, even when it is required. 

3. Causation. One of the most difficult aspects of a medical negligence claim can be proving causation - that the prison staff’s failure to order testing or treatment in a timely manner caused the injuries which a prisoner later suffered. Often times, proving the element of causation requires that an expert witness be hired, to review all the prisoner’s medical records and write an “expert report” that can be introduced into the evidentiary record. Without this type of a report, the prison medical staff may be able to dismiss the case, on the argument that it is impossible to prove that their actions caused the negative outcome that is the subject of the lawsuit. 

4. Damages. The question of proving damages is always difficult, and becomes even more so in prisoner litigation. Even when a person is forced to undergo an amputation, or live with a disability or disfigurement, there is a strong bias that the person has not suffered much of a loss because “they are just a prisoner anyway.” Both juries, and the insurance companies which defend the medical staff during litigation, may have this view. 

The problem is compounded because a typical means of proving damages, by showing a decreased income, is usually not available for people who cannot work because they are in jail. Therefore, the sad reality is that people in prison may often receive less compensation than those who are not incarcerated, but have similar injuries.  

Working with an attorney is a key step in maximizing recovery for injuries caused by the negligence of prison medical staff. If you or someone you know has been injured by a prison medical department’s refusal to provide adequate medical care, please contact the Mizner Law Firm immediately at 815-454-3889 or to see how we may be able to assist you.