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Washington State Prisoner Granted Preliminary Injunction to Treat Neuroma; Case Settles for $120,000

On Sept. 17, 2010, a federal district court in Washington State granted a preliminary injunction to a state prisoner, requiring prison officials to provide necessary medical treatment.

The preliminary injunction was issued in a civil rights action brought by Jean Rhea, incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). The injunction requires treatment of Rhea’s neuroma – a painful mass of nerve tissue at the end of an amputated stump.

After being involved in a 1993 motorcycle accident, Rhea’s right leg was removed at the knee. She used crutches for the first nine years after the amputation, but obtained a prosthesis when she began experiencing severe pain in her shoulders and left knee in 2002.

Prior to being imprisoned at WCCW in May 2008, Rhea had an appointment to have her prosthesis evaluated because it was not fitting well. Weight loss and broken parts in the prosthesis caused additional problems, which resulted in Rhea falling about once a week.

The Care Review Committee (CRC) of the Washington Dept. of Corrections (WDOC) decided on March 18, 2009 that it would repair the prosthesis, but after four examining physicians determined Rhea required a new prosthesis, with one doctor saying the neuroma required surgery, the CRC decided the prosthesis was “not clearly medically necessary” because Rhea was not in “intractable pain.”

The district court found that although WDOC’s Offender Health Plan requires prisoners to prove “intractable pain” or pain that “dominates [their] existence and precludes [them] from normal activities,” the Eighth Amendment requires only a showing that the failure to treat a serious medical condition can lead to further injury or the “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.”

The evidence indicated that Rhea’s neuroma caused her extreme pain and a “feeling like a million needles are poking” her. One physician testified that “[d]elay in treatment of the neuroma will cause continued difficulties with distal weight bearing, gait abnormalities, and worsening biomechanics across the hip, pelvis, low back and left leg.” The WDOC presented no evidence to the contrary.

Even if not required to provide a new prosthesis, the WDOC must provide care for Rhea’s neuroma because it is causing her chronic and substantial pain, the district court held when granting the motion for a preliminary injunction.

The case subsequently settled on February 3, 2011, with the WDOC agreeing to pay Rhea $120,000. Prison officials further agreed to provide Rhea with assistance in adapting to a new fitting for her prosthesis, including physical therapy if required, and to have her left knee evaluated by a medical provider. Rhea was represented by the Public Interest Law Group, PLLC. See: Rhea v. Washington State Department of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 2:10-cv-0254-BHS-KLS.

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Related legal case

Rhea v. Washington State Department of Corrections