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$550,000 Jury Award for Failure to Treat Prisoner’s Broken Jaw

The First Circuit Court of Appeals found that a Massachusetts federal district court improperly weighed the evidence when granting summary judgment to the defendants in a prisoner’s civil rights suit alleging nurses at the Bristol House of Correction failed to treat his serious medical condition.

Shortly after being booked into the jail, prisoner Rico Perry was involved in an altercation with several guards. The June 9, 2007 incident resulted in serious injuries to Perry, who was examined by nurse Susie Roy. Perry alleged his mouth was “pouring blood” from a long gash, his jaw was “clenched” and he had a lump on his head. He told Roy that he was in pain and had a broken jaw.

According to his complaint, Roy did not “thoroughly examine” him or “come to focus on his jaw.” Roy, however, said she diagnosed a cracked tooth, cleaned the wound, had Perry rinse his mouth and provided him with gauze. She said he could open his mouth wide and verbalize without difficulty.

Later that night, while Perry was in his cell, Roy applied smelling salts to wake him after he passed out. He asked to be taken to a hospital but his request was ignored. Around 4 a.m., Nurse Claire Rocha examined Perry through the cell’s glass window, noting he had an “egg” on his forehead. She said she would help him, but after speaking to one of the guards involved in the altercation, who told her to let Perry “sleep it off,” she denied further care.

Around 5:30-6:00 p.m., or 17 hours after he was injured, Perry was examined by a third nurse, who observed he had swelling of the jaw and some wheezing. That resulted in a hospital transfer, which found Perry had an acute bilateral mandibular fracture. The attending physician said Perry had suffered “critical injuries” caused by the use of a “tremendous amount of force.” He was transferred to another hospital and treated.

Perry then sued Roy and Rocha, claiming they were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs by failing to provide treatment for his broken jaw. The district court, however, granted them summary judgment, finding that even if Perry had told both nurses that he had a broken jaw and asked to be taken to a hospital, that was insufficient by itself to establish deliberate indifference. Perry appealed.

The First Circuit found there were several material facts in dispute that, if believed by a jury, could result in a finding for Perry. Those facts basically covered the entire spectrum of Perry’s allegations, which had to be accepted as true for summary judgment purposes.

The Court of Appeals was critical of the district court’s weighing of the evidence. The district court had found that because Perry was “provided some additional treatment as the condition evolved over time,” his serious medical needs were not ignored. “If we were to accept this premise, no deliberate indifference case would go to trial so long as someone managed to take an inmate to a hospital right before he or she died, as we can easily presume serious medical conditions do not necessarily improve on their own over time,” the appellate court noted. “This is precisely why the Constitution protects an inmate from a significant risk of future health harms.”

The district court’s summary judgment order was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Perry v. Roy, 782 F.3d 73 (1st Cir. 2015).

Following remand, a trial was held in September 2015 and the jury entered a verdict for Perry, awarding him $50,000 in compensatory damages plus $250,000 in punitive damages each against Roy and Rocha, for a total award of $550,000. The case remains pending on Perry’s post-trial motion for attorney fees and the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law. See: Perry v. Roy, U.S.D.C. (D. Mass.), Case No. 1:10-cv-10769-FDS. 

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