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California: State May Be Liable for Delaying Medical Care to Prisoner’s Infant Child

The California Court of Appeal has held that the State may be vicariously liable for the acts or omissions of its employees in failing to provide needed medical care for an infant living with its mother in a private, community-based correctional facility operating under a contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

In a complaint filed on behalf of herself and her daughter Esperanza, Denisha Lawson alleged that, while she was housed at Family Foundations - San Diego, a 40-bed residential facility run by Center Point, Inc., Esperanza sustained serious and permanent physical injury as a result of a delay in receiving medical treatment for a respiratory infection.

According to the complaint, Lawson was pregnant in November 2006 when she was placed at the Center Point facility under an alternative sentencing program for women prisoners with young children. She gave birth to Esperanza prematurely in March 2007.
When she was barely five weeks old, Esperanza developed severe respiratory problems.
Lawson allegedly asked facility personnel, over the course of more than a week, to obtain medical treatment for her daughter, who had stopped breathing on at least three occasions. Her requests were repeatedly denied; ultimately, however, one of the facility’s employees defied her supervisors and took Esperanza to a hospital. There, Esperanza was treated for double pneumonia, cardiac arrest, scarring and injury to both lungs.

The complaint raised numerous causes of action, including causes of action for negligence (as to both Esperanza and her mother Denisha) and emotional distress (as to Denisha only), and named the State and Center Point, as well as employees of the State and Center Point, as defendants. Citing the governmental immunity provisions set forth in the Tort Claims Act (Gov. Code, § 810 et seq.), the trial court sustained the defendants’ demurrers (motions to dismiss) as to the negligence and emotional distress causes of action.

Ruling on a petition for writ of mandate filed by Lawson and her daughter, the Fourth Appellate District held that the trial court had erred in dismissing Esperanza’s negligence claims against the State and Center Point (and their employees), as well as in dismissing Denisha’s claims of negligence and emotional distress against Center Point (and its employees). Esperanza, unlike her mother, could proceed on her negligence claim against the state, the Court held, because, unlike her mother, she was not a “prisoner” and thus different immunity provisions applied.

As to Esperanza, the State can be vicariously liable for the acts and omissions of its employees. The central issue, as the Court framed it, was whether, as a matter of law, the state employees had a legal duty to obtain medical care for Esperanza. The Court, relying on Giraldo v. Dept. of Corrections & Rehabilitation (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 231, found that, because Esperanza was solely dependent on facility personnel to obtain whatever medical care she may have required, such a legal duty existed. Accordingly, the State may be liable for damages. See: Lawson v. Superior Court (Center Point, Inc.), 80 Cal.App.4th 1372, 103 Cal.Rptr.3d 834 (2010).

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Related legal case

Lawson v. Superior Court (Center Point, Inc.)