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Family of California Immigration Prisoner Who Died Due to Untreated Cancer Gets $3.68 Million

The family of an illegal immigrant who died from untreated penile cancer was awarded $1.73 million in damages against state prison officials by a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury on November 10, 2010. Federal defendants named in a separate lawsuit settled the family’s claims in April 2011 for an additional $1.95 million.

PLN has previously reported the sordid details surrounding Francisco Castañeda’s sad and preventable death. [See: PLN, April 2010, p.46; Sept. 2008, p.32].

While serving time for drug possession, doctors at California’s North Kern State Prison examined a growth on Castañeda’s penis. A biopsy was ordered, but the head physician disapproved the test.

Castañeda was later transferred to federal custody for deportation in March 2006. While at the San Diego Correctional Facility, the growth on Castañeda’s penis became worse. He began suffering from bleeding, drainage and a foul odor from his penis, and although biopsies were repeatedly ordered they were not performed. He received Ibuprofen and a clean pair of boxer shorts as treatment.

A biopsy was finally scheduled in January 2007. Rather than pay for the test, though, immigration officials released Castañeda 11 days later.

The biopsy was subsequently performed at a Los Angeles hospital, and Castañeda was belatedly diagnosed with metastatic squamous cell carcinoma. His penis was amputated nine days after his release from custody but it was too late to save his life. Castañeda died on February 16, 2008 after a year of unsuccessful chemotherapy. He was 36 years old.

Prior to his death, Castañeda testified before a Congressional subcommittee about the deficient medical care provided to prisoners in ICE detention facilities. “I had to be here today because I am not the only one who didn’t get the medical care I needed,” he said. “It was routine for detainees to have to wait weeks or months to get even basic care. Who knows how many tragic endings can be avoided if ICE will only remember that, regardless of why a person is in detention and regardless of where they will end up, they are still human and deserve basic, humane medical care.”

Castañeda’s family filed suit in both state and federal courts. The U.S. District Court found that the denial of medical care by prison staff was “beyond cruel and unusual punishment.” The federal case eventually ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which held in May 2010 that employees of the U.S. Public Health Service are not subject to liability under Bivens. [See: PLN, Oct. 2010, p.44]. The case proceeded on remand on claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA).

In the state court suit, California officials contended they were not liable for Castañeda’s death and that his cancer was untreatable. Castañeda’s family argued that his life could have been saved had he received appropriate care in a timely manner. The jury agreed, awarding $1.73 million in damages.

Castañeda’s daughter, Vanessa, 17, will receive $1.5 million for the death of her father and $230,000 for past medical expenses, a portion of which will go to reimburse Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program. The state has appealed the jury award. See: Castañeda v. State of California, Los Angeles County Superior Court (CA), Case No. VC050229.

“Finally, after three years of the state denying responsibility, a jury of Vanessa’s peers found that the state killed her father and recognized the tremendous loss with a full and fair verdict,” said Conal Doyle, Vanessa’s attorney.

A trial against the federal defendants in U.S. District Court was scheduled for April 26, 2011, but the defendants agreed to a $1.95 million settlement shortly before trial. Of that amount, up to 25% will go to pay attorney’s fees. The settlement includes the purchase of an annuity that will make payments to Vanessa over the next 17 years. She was represented by Doyle and other attorneys with Public Justice, a public interest law firm. See: Castañeda v. United States, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:07-cv-07241-DDP-JC.

Additional sources: San Francisco Chronicle, Associated Press,,,

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Castañeda v. United States

Castañeda v. State of California