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Prisoner’s Deliberate Indifference Suit Over Tooth Abscess Reinstated by Seventh Circuit

Lester Dobbey, confined at Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center in 2011, sought treatment at the prison’s medical unit for severe tooth pain that was later determined to be an abscessed molar. When he arrived for a dental appointment, a guard told him the dentist was not in, his appointment was cancelled and he would have to go back to his unit. Dobbey was denied any pain medication even though he advised the guard that he was in extreme discomfort.

Despite continued complaints of severe pain, stomach cramps and vomiting, he was not seen by the dentist until two weeks later, when he received penicillin to treat a serious infection and the irreparably-damaged abscessed tooth was extracted. Dobbey filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against both the dentist and the guard in the medical unit, alleging deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment and Dobbey appealed. The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded, noting that the lower court had failed to appreciate the severity of the abscessed tooth or attach sufficient weight to the inadequate response of prison staff to Dobbey’s medical condition.

“A tooth abscess is not a simple toothache,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “It is a bacterial infection of the root of the tooth, and it can spread to the adjacent gum and beyond – way beyond. It is often painful and can be dangerous. Loss of the tooth is common, though can sometimes be prevented by prompt detection and treatment of the abscess. Dobbey does not connect his abdominal woes to the abscess, but he may well not have known that stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting are common consequences of a tooth abscess and so may have been caused or aggravated by his abscess. Because the bacteria in an abscessed tooth can spread to other vital organs and even cause death, prompt treatment is imperative.”

The appellate court also noted in its November 24, 2015 decision that no explanation had been provided for the prison dentist’s failure to promptly treat Dobbey’s tooth, and that the guard who failed to arrange for timely medical assistance or pain relief also was clearly indifferent. This easily satisfied the standard for deliberate indifference set in the landmark case of Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976).

The Seventh Circuit reversed the district court, holding that the clear evidence of deliberate indifference by the defendants to Dobbey’s serious dental condition precluded a grant of summary judgment in their favor. The Court of Appeals suggested that the district court appoint counsel and perhaps a “neutral expert witness” for Dobbey, and the case remains pending on remand. See: Dobbey v. Mitchell-Lawshea, 806 F.3d 938 (7th Cir. 2015). 

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Related legal case

Dobbey v. Mitchell-Lawshea