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Third Circuit Says Asthma May be Physical Injury

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a lower court’s dismissal of a federal prisoner’s Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) negligence claim for failing to show a sufficient physical injury under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

Federal prisoner Mike Perez brought an FTCA action, alleging that prison officials negligently responded to his asthma attack. The district court granted prison officials summary judgment, because nightmares are not a sufficient physical injury under the PLRA.

The Third Circuit reversed, noting that the lower court failed to consider all of the physical injuries Perez claimed. Citing Munn v. Toney, 433 F.3d 1087 (8th Cir. 2006), the court said it was “unclear why the District Court did not consider whether the immediate physical effects from the asthma attack itself were not sufficient physical injury. The court also noted that “Perez stated that he was dizzy, weak, nauseous, and had a headache immediately after the attack and that he had back pain from coughing for a couple of days.” The court remanded, directing “the District Court to consider…whether the other physical injuries Perez claimed met the criteria of 28 USC § 1346(b)(2) and 42 USC § 1997e(e).”

On remand, however, “the District Court again found Perez unable to overcome the physical injury requirement of the statutes “because his dizziness, headaches, weakness, back pain, and nausea, all of which were temporary in nature and did not require medical attention are considered de minimis for the purposes of the PLRA’s physical injury requirement.”

The Third Circuit again disagreed, noting that “Perez reported that his symptoms, associated with his asthma attack, were of such a severity that he needed steroids, a prescription medicine, and other medical treatment to recover.” Whether Perez needed medical treatment to resolve his symptoms was “a matter of contention between the parties.”

The court noted “that a severe asthma attack can be life-threatening like a heart attack, which courts have held to be more than a de minimis physical injury. See: Mata v. Saiz, 427 F.3d 745, 755, n.4 (10th Cir. 2005).” Ultimately, the court held that “the severity of the attack and the need for medical treatment are genuine issues of material fact…It remains in question whether Perez met the physical injury requirement to support his negligence claim for emotional injuries.” Given that “the nature of Perez’s injuries remains unclear in light of the conflicting submissions of the parties,” the court concluded that the “decision to grant summary judgment…on the basis that Perez’s injuries were de minimis was in error.” See: Perez v. United States, 330 Fed. Appx. 388 (3rd Cir. 2009).

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Related legal case

Perez v. United States