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Federal Prisoner Wins $300,000 Judgment on Medical Negligence Claim

Federal prisoner Michael Patrick Giambalvo won a judgment against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) action alleging medical negligence. The award by West Virginia U.S. District Court Judge Michael Siebert was for $250,000 in economic damages and $50,000 in non-economic damages. No award was made for potential lost wages in Judge Siebert’s March 12, 2015 order.

Giambalvo’s story is, unfortunately, all too typical of BOP medical care: misdiagnosis, delayed treatment, unnecessary transfers from facility to facility instead of treating his medical condition promptly at the location where it was first diagnosed and, finally, botched treatment when he finally arrived at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina.

Giambalvo’s odyssey began at U.S. Penitentiary Hazelton in 2007 when he complained of a painful ingrown toenail on his right foot. The nail was surgically removed and he was treated for infection, but contrary to BOP regulations he was not tested for Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a highly infectious “flesh-eating” disease relatively common in correctional facilities. That failure to properly diagnose the nature of Giambalvo’s infected toe resulted in what was to become a chronic, debilitating and ultimately life-changing injury.

Giambalvo was then subjected to “diesel therapy” by being transferred from prison to prison. In 2008 he was moved from USP Hazelton to Federal Correctional Institution Gilmer, located in Glenville, West Virginia. Later that same year he was transferred from FCI Gilmer to FCI Otisville in New York. In 2009, Giambalvo was finally transferred to the Federal Medical Center in Butner.

While at Butner he received an MRI, which revealed that he was also afflicted with Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), a neuropathic pain condition that affects a limb, such as a hand or foot. Medical testimony introduced by Giambalvo’s attorney indicated that the condition could be caused by trauma to the affected limb.

Whatever the cause, as a result of his mounting medical issues, the district court wrote that “Giambalvo is primarily confined to using a wheelchair.... Using a cane, Giambalvo can walk very short distances with a pressurized boot that provides greater load reduction in the forefoot.... For the rest of his life Giambalvo will experience pain, restricted range of motion, loss of strength, and compromised mobility ... [and he] will need lifelong medical attention and care.”

Giambalvo’s negligence action, filed in 2011 under the FTCA, stated three causes of action. Count I alleged “[n]egligence, carelessness and medical malpractice” by the medical staff at USP Hazelton. Count II alleged permanent damage to Giambalvo’s foot and sought, among other things, injunctive relief for future podiatry care. Count III alleged “mental and emotional distress, extreme pain and suffering” due to the BOP’s failure to provide adequate medical treatment.

As the court noted in its ruling, “It is well settled that an injured plaintiff may recover damages for pain and suffering caused by the negligence of the defendant.” Further, “‘[a] plaintiff may recover the cost of reasonable and necessary future medical and hospital services and for future pain and suffering when the evidence shows it is reasonably certain that such future expenses will be incurred and are proximately related to the negligence of the defendant.’” The district court concluded “that the USP Hazelton medical staff’s treatment of Giambalvo fell below the standard of care, and, consequently, Giambalvo suffered degenerative and permanent injuries to his right foot. Because of his injuries, he has lost the ‘use of a limb’ and will be unable ‘to independently care for himself or ... perform life sustaining activities.’”

The defendants appealed to the Fourth Circuit on May 8, 2015, though the BOP subsequently withdrew its appeal and was taxed $10,134.91 in appellate costs. The defendants failed to disburse funds to pay the judgment award as required, and on February 19, 2016 the district court set an evidentiary hearing and ordered the BOP to “designate the person responsible for disbursement of funds to satisfy a judgment under the Federal Tort Claims Act.” The case remains pending. See: Giambalvo v. United States, U.S.D.C. (N.D. WV), Case No. 1:11-cv-00014-JES; 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30212. 

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Related legal case

Giambalvo v. United States