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New Jersey DOC Liable for Prisoner Death Caused by CMS

by Robert H. Woodman

The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, partly affirming a New Jersey prisoner's estate's suit, held that the New Jersey Department of Corrections (DOC) could be held liable for the negligence of Correctional Medical Services (CMS) in treating a prisoner's medical condition, resulting in the prisoner's death.

Tyrone Neal was a DOC prisoner in February 1997 at the East Jersey State Prison when he was diagnosed with a medical condition known as Paroxysmal Nocturnal Hemoglobinuria with hemolytic episode" (PNH). The illness is a breakdown of the red blood cells. Treatment requires prednisone. The only known cure is a bone marrow transplant. After discharge from the hospital, the DOC administered prednisone until May 1997, then quit. In June 1997, Neal transferred to the Middlesex County Adult Corrections Center (MCACC) for sentencing on an unrelated charge. While there, he repeatedly completed medical request forms for treatment, but MCACC physicians refused to administer prednisone to Neal. On August 1, 1997, Neal died of PNH.

Neal's estate and his daughter, Tymirah Scott-Neal sued the DOC, MCACC, and CMS, but none of the individuals involved, under New Jersey state law claims and 42 U.S.C. §1983. The case was dismissed on summary judgment but partly reinstated on appeal. CMS was dismissed as a defendant. On remand, the trial court dismissed all claims, and Plaintiffs appealed.

The appeals court held that dismissal of the §1983 claims against the DOC was proper because DOC is not person" within the meaning of the statute. MCACC was properly dismissed under § 1983 because it is also not a person and, further, because Plaintiff failed to show the existence of a policy, practice, or custom by MCACC that caused Neal's death.

The appeals court, however, reversed dismissal of the negligence claims. The court held that the trial court's reasoning was flawed. The trial court held that DOC and MCACC were relieved of their obligations to provide medical care to Neal once they contracted the care out to CMS. The appeals court held, Contracting out prison medical care does not relieve the State of its constitutional duty to provide adequate medical treatment to those in its custody..

The appeals court further held that the plaintiffs made a sufficient showing to survive summary judgment on the negligence claims. The trial court dismissed the claims on grounds that CMS was an independent contractor. The appeals court repeated that contracting care out to CMS relieved neither DOC nor MCACC of their obligations to provide adequate medical care to Neal. However, citing New Jersey's Tort Claims Act, the appeals court agreed with the trial court that plaintiffs could not win punitive damages against the government agency defendants.

The trial court decision was affirmed in part and reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings. See: Scott-Neal v. New Jersey State Department of Corrections, 366 N.J. Super. 570, 841 A.2d 957, (2004).

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