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Fifth Circuit Grants Louisiana Prison Doctor Qualified Immunity

by Matt Clarke

The Fifth Circuit court of appeals reversed a Louisiana district court’s denial of qualified immunity for a prison doctor.

Anthony Gobert, a former Louisiana state prisoner, was incarcerated at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center (EHCC) and on work release when his leg was accidentally crushed below the knee. He underwent emergency surgery and initial recovery at a hospital where he was given intravenous antibiotics. His hospital discharge summary indicated he should remain on antibiotics, receive wound cleansings and have periodic visits from an orthopedic specialist. His discharge was to the EHCC infirmary where Dr. Lawerence Caldwell was responsible for his care. During his 73-day stay in the infirmary, Gobert experienced problems with his leg and medical care. Upon his release from prison, he sought private medical care, and was immediately diagnosed with osteomyelitis (bone infection) which required multiple corrective surgeries.

Gobert filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights action in federal district court alleging Caldwell was deliberately indifferent to his serious medial needs. The district court denied Caldwell’s a motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. Caldwell appealed.

The Fifth Circuit noted that deliberate indifference to serious medical needs was an extremely high standard to meet, requiring much more than evidence of negligence or even medical malpractice. “A showing of deliberate indifference required the prisoner to submit evidence that prison officials ‘refused to treat him, ignored his complaints, intentionally treated him incorrectly, or engaged in any similar conduct that would clearly evidence a wanton disregard for any serious medical needs.’”

Caldwell agreed that Gobert had a serious medical need and he knew the nature of the wound exposed Caldwell to an increased risk of developing infection if not properly treated. Attached to his motion for summary judgment, Caldwell submitted a summary of the treatment Gobert received at EHCC. This included a daily wound cleansing and dressing change, four visits to an orthopedic clinic, various medications for his condition, three X-rays, a wheelchair, a post-release follow-up appointment with a specialist and permission to go to the front of the pill line. Caldwell alleged that Gobert’s medical records showed that he had no complaints about his condition on at least six occasions, one of which was three days before his release from prison, and had refused to comply with his doctor’s orders to keep his leg elevated on several occasions. Gobert did not contest the facts contained in Caldwell’s medical summary. Instead, he raised legal arguments when opposing summary judgment.

The Fifth Circuit held that the medical records and summary showed, at worst, a period of six days after Gobert returned from an orthopedic appointment during which he received no antibiotics. Caldwell claimed that no antibiotics were prescribed by the orthopedic specialist and he deferred to them. The Fifth Circuit held that this was medical negligence at most and that “no disputed fact question, when resolved in favor of Gobert, rises to the level of egregious intentional conduct required to satisfy the exacting deliberate indifference standard.” Therefore, the Fifth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of summary judgment and returned the case to that court for further proceedings on pendent state law medical negligence claims. See: Gobert v. Caldwell, 463 F.3d 339 (5th Cir., 2006).

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Related legal case

Gobert v. Caldwell