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Seventh Circuit: Prisoner with Back Condition Stated Claim for Fall from Upper Bunk

Seventh Circuit: Prisoner with Back Condition Stated Claim for Fall from Upper Bunk


by Michael Brodheim


The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a prisoner who suffers from scoliosis stated a claim for deliberate indifference when he alleged that he fell and injured himself trying to climb into an upper bunk bed after specifically complaining that, due to back pain, he wasn’t able to access the upper bunk.

In January 2009, Illinois state prisoner Dorcus Withers filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that various healthcare professionals had been deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit noted that although Withers suffered from scoliosis (i.e., curvature of the spine) and “frequent flare-ups” of back pain, the evidence was “overwhelming” that he was also a malingerer and had no medical need for a back brace, a medical mattress or orthopedic shoes – some of the items he repeatedly requested.

The Court of Appeals was troubled, however, by an encounter between Withers and prison nurse Debra Miller. According to Withers, Miller had denied his request to let him stay overnight in the prison’s Health Care Unit despite his report of back pain; she then returned him to his cell in a wheelchair. When he told her that he wouldn’t be able to climb into his upper bunk, she replied that he’d “figure it out” and left. Withers claimed he then fell and injured himself trying to climb into the upper bunk, which was not equipped with a ladder.

The appellate court wrote that “Even if all the plaintiff’s allegations are true ... they don’t make a conclusive case of deliberate indifference. The nurse may, in light of the plaintiff’s record of malingering, have believed that he would have no difficulty climbing to the upper bunk, or at least that he would not fall and hurt himself. She may have believed he was just trying to lie his way into a more comfortable bed in the Health Care Unit.”

Regardless, the Seventh Circuit held that Withers’ claim related to his fall from the upper bunk may have merit, and there was at least a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Nurse Miller was deliberately indifferent to his medical needs in that regard. All other aspects of the lower court’s summary judgment order were affirmed. See: Withers v. Wexford Health Services, Inc., 710 F.3d 688 (7th Cir. 2013).

Following remand, the district court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants on February 12, 2014, dismissing the case. The court found that Nurse Miller was not deliberately indifferent to Withers’ medical condition, noting that he had a mild form of scoliosis, may have exaggerated his condition and did not suffer any significant injuries. Further, the district court held that even if Withers’ allegations were true he could at most demonstrate negligence, which does not support an Eighth Amendment claim. See: Withers v. Wexford Health Services, Inc., U.S.D.C. (C.D. Ill.), Case No. 1:09-cv-01035-HAB-JAG.


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Related legal cases

Withers v. Wexford Health Services, Inc.


Withers v. Wexford Health Services, Inc.