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California: State Not Liable for Failure to Provide Needed Treatment so Long as Medical Care is Summoned

On January 15, 2013, the California Court of Appeal held that state prison officials were immune from liability, as a matter of law, for decisions that resulted in a prisoner failing to receive the medical treatment he needed. Those decisions led to the amputation of the prisoner’s penis after his cancer had metastasized, and to his eventual death.

Following his 2004 conviction for possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, Francisco Castaneda complained of pain during urination and a growth that had been on his penis for several years. An initial medical intake screening in 2005 resulted in a referral for a urology consult and biopsy to rule out cancer. Castaneda was transferred to another prison, however, then released to federal authorities in 2006 before the referral – which was at first considered “routine” but ultimately deemed “urgent” – was acted upon.

Days after he was released from federal custody in 2007, Castaneda was diagnosed with penile cancer. His penis was amputated and he died a year later; he was 36 years old. [See: PLN, Dec. 2011, p.40; June 2011, p.24; Oct. 2010, p.44; April 2010, p.46; Sept. 2008, p.32].

Before his death, Castaneda filed a federal lawsuit naming the doctors who had treated him as defendants, as well as a complaint in state court against California prison officials. The former suit resulted in a settlement of $1.95 million from the federal government in April 2011; the latter alleged a violation of Government Code section 845.6 for failure to summon medical care.

Following Castaneda’s death, his sister was substituted on behalf of his estate while his daughter, Vanessa, as beneficiary of the estate, amended the complaint to add a wrongful death claim.

The case went to trial and a jury returned a verdict in favor of Castaneda’s estate and Vanessa in the amounts of $234,557 and $1.5 million, respectively.

The state appealed and the Court of Appeal held that Vanessa, who had not filed a tort claim on her own behalf, could not use Castaneda’s tort claim for his pre-death personal injuries as a substitute for her own wrongful death claim. Accordingly, the $1.5 million judgment in her favor was reversed.

As to the estate, the Court of Appeal noted that the state and its public entities – as opposed to its employees – are generally immune from liability for injuries to prisoners. Section 845.6 affirms such public-entity immunity while creating a narrow exception in cases when a public employee fails to take reasonable action to summon needed medical treatment.

Following established precedent, the Court of Appeal distinguished between the failure to summon medical care – for which the state can be held liable under section 845.6 – and negligence in providing that care, for which the state is immune. So long as medical care is summoned, as was the case when Castaneda’s referral and biopsy were scheduled, the state cannot be held liable for its failure to actually provide that care. Accordingly, the jury award in favor of Castaneda’s estate was reversed.

In considering the federal case of Jett v. Penner, 439 F.3d 1091 (9th Cir. 2006) [PLN, April 2007, p.40], relied upon by the plaintiffs, the appellate court held Penner had ignored state case law and wrongly interpreted section 845.6 as imposing not just a duty to summon medical care, but to summon care that a prisoner “actually needs.”

Readers should note that public employees remain subject to liability for medical malpractice. While the state may indemnify its employees for such malpractice, the state itself is immune from suit directly. See: Castaneda v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 212 Cal. App. 4th 1051, 151 Cal. Rptr. 3d 648 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2013), review denied.

Additional source: Associated Press

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Related legal case

Castaneda v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation