On December 31, 2013, the Intermediate Court of Appeals for the State of Hawaii (“Appellate Court”) issued its opinion in which it held that prison doctors are not shielded from personal liability for medical malpractice claims by the doctrine of qualified immunity.
The Appellate Court held that while the prison doctors who negligently treated an inmate’s serous infection were exercising professional judgment and discretion, their actions in conjunction with the diagnosis and treatment of the inmate were medical and not governmental — there were no public affairs, public planning, policy-making, public duty, or governmental discretion involved.
The Appellate Court noted that physicians are held to an independent standard of care established by the medical profession and therefore denying them immunity for medical malpractice would not hinder the execution of their duties; that granting prison physicians immunity would undermine their adherence to professional standards; and, that medical judgment is not the type of governmental discretion entitled to protection under the official immunity doctrine. The Appellate Curt held that “[P]risoners should not be denied recovery ‘for the sole reason that the doctor or nurse is a government employee.'”
The Underlying Facts
The inmate had scrotal pain due to a scrotal abscess in September 2003. He was initially seen by a nurse and not by a doctor. However, a doctor prescribed an antibiotic. Two days later, his scrotum was the size of a grapefruit and a pain medication was prescribed. The following day, he was seen by a prison doctor who prescribed another antibiotic (by that time his scrotum was oozing pus and blood from the infection). The next day, he was taken to a urologist, who performed an incision and drainage procedure. The inmate had a total of six surgeries, amputation of his scrotal sac, multiple skin graft procedures, was hospitalized for two months, and suffers from infertility, loss of production of male hormones, and painful erections.
The inmate subsequently filed a complaint for medical malpractice along with other claims. The prison doctors moved for summary judgment, alleging that they were entitled to qualified immunity, which motion the trial judge denied.
At the conclusion of the bench trial (a nonjury trial), the trial judge determined that the proper dose of antibiotic was not given and that the antibiotic should have been changed when it became apparent that it was not working, which fell below the applicable standard of care. The judge further found that the incision and drainage procedure for the abscess should have been performed on an earlier date and that the delay in performing the procedure fell below the standard of care. The judge awarded the inmate $306,188 for the present value of his past and future lost earnings, $362,712 for the present value of his future medical expenses, and $300,000 for his past and future pain and suffering, mental anguish, and disfigurement (plus $50,495.29 for costs).
If you or a family member were injured due to possible prison medical malpractice, you should promptly consult with a local medical malpractice attorney who may investigate your malpractice claim for you and represent you in an inmate medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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