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What legal remedies are available for medical neglect in prison?

In our last post, we began speaking about the issue of medical care in prison and fact that prisoners do have the right to adequate medical care. Here, we want to take a brief look at the legal remedies that are available to prisoners who have been denied such care.

At the state level, prisoners may be able to enforce their constitutional rights by filing an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. One of the advantages of suing under this statute is that a plaintiff is able to avoid any state limitations on medical malpractice caps. Here in Michigan, noneconomic damages are capped in medical malpractice cases, but pursuing a section 1983 action would allow a plaintiff to avoid the cap. Other advantages include the availability of attorney’s fees and a potentially longer statute of limitations.

While section 1983 actions may be brought against state and local employees or entities, they may also be brought against private parties who are acting “under the color of law.” In the context of prison medical care, state prisons often contract out for medical services. Prisoners who are deprived of adequate medical care by a government contractor may also be held liable in such an action. At the federal level, prisoners may pursue a similar action under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

Alternatively, a state prisoner is also able to pursue tort liability for substandard care. Doing so would require presenting evidence to prove each element of a standard negligence claim. Federal prisoners, for their part, may pursue tort liability under the Federal Tort Claims Act, unless the injury was caused intentionally.

With any of these alternatives for pursuing liability, it is critical for prisoners to work with an experienced attorney who understands the law, the issues that arise in these cases, and how to best advocate for a neglected prisoner’s interests.

Source: Columbia Human Rights Law Review, “A Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual: Chapter 23: Your Right to Adequate Medical Care,” Eighth Edition, 2009. 

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