Tuesday, September 22, 2009

New legal standard dismisses inmate's wrongful death claim

Inmates who sue their captors for constitutional violations have a difficult legal standard to satisfy. In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that it is not enough for the inmate to show that the prison employee (usually a guard or someone in the medical office) was deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs (an objective standard). That case was Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994). Under Farmer, the inmate has to show that his captor consciously disregarded a risk of harm (a subjective standard). Farmer involved prisoners who were already convicted of a crime and are in state custody. Does the Farmer standard also apply to pretrial detainees who have not yet been convicted of anything? The answer is now Yes.

The case is Caiozzo v. Koreman, decided on September 22. The case stems from an inmate who died shortly after entering county jail on a harassment charge. The intake staff mistakenly thought the inmate was intoxicated upon entering the jail and, in fact, he had a serious drinking problem. The mistaken belief that the inmate was drunk prompted staff to place him in a "continual observation" setting. After a difficult first night of spasms and other problems, he was rushed to Albany Medical Center, where he died from a seizure due to acute and chronic alcoholism. His family sues the jail under the Constitution for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs. They claim that staff should have known the inmate was in danger of severe alcohol withdrawal and that this oversight caused his death.

The jail officials win the case. But not before the Court of Appeals (Sack, Katzmann and Kelly) deal with the ramifications of the Farmer precedent, now on the books for 15 years. Farmer is an Eighth Amendment ("cruel and unusual punishment") case which covers prisoners who were already convicted of a crime. For pretrial detainees, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies. Farmer applied a subjective test because in Eighth Amendment cases the inmate is challenging an aspect of his punishment which necessarily requires that jail personnel actually be aware of an excessive risk to the inmate's health and safety. Over the years, the Second Circuit has not gotten around to deciding if pretrial detainees have to satisfy the same legal standard. However, the circuits around the country have already resolved this issue, favoring the jail officials and holding that a pretrial detainee must prove that the defendant knew about and disregarded a risk of harm to the inmate.

This is not a new rule, though. In 1977, the Second Circuit held in Arroyo v. Schaefer, 548 F.2d 47 (2d Cir. 1977) that this heightened standard should apply. Arroyo pre-dates Farmer by 17 years. Post-Farmer, the Court of Appeals assumed the Arroyo standard still applied. Today the Court of Appeals makes it official. The Farmer standard applies whether the inmate is a pretrial detainee or a convicted prisoner.

Unfortunately for the plaintiff in today's case, the revised legal standard requires dismissal. Plaintiff argues that jail personnel should have known that Caiozzo was in immediate danger of alcohol withdrawal and that appropriate action could have saved his life; instead they thought he was intoxicated and therefore did not act accordingly. Although jail personnel incorrectly thought he was simply intoxicated and no in danger of imminent severe alcohol withdrawal, there is no evidence that personnel was actually aware of any imminent danger. Without that evidence, the case is dismissed.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Good post.

FYI, I wrote a post on Caiozzo this a.m., to auto-post tomorrow morning. (I don't want you thinking I am committing post theft with a similarly-worded post shows up tomorrow a.m.) Mine is different enough; still, blogging integrity (and there appearance thereof) is important to me.

Again, nice post.