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Dismissal of Ill. Prisoner's Dental Care Lawsuit Affirmed By Seventh Circuit

by Lonnie Burton

On February 15, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decided that a lower court's dismissal of Illinois state prisoner's lawsuit against a private medical contractor and a prison dentist should be upheld. The appellate court agreed that the prisoner's deliberate indifference claims for inadequate dental treatment failed as a matter of law.

The case concerns Wexford Health Sources Inc., a private medical provider contracted to provide medical and dental services to state prisoners in Illinois. Lamont Lake was a prisoner at the Hill Correctional Center, and sued Wexford and prison dentist Carol Jackson for pain and suffering as the result of substandard dental care. Defendants moved for, and were granted summary judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, and Lake appealed.

The Seventh Circuit first noted that Wexford has a reputation of "withholding medical care to save money," and that it's a "common criticism" of Wexford.

Turning to the facts of this case, the appellate court accepted Lake's contention that one of Lake's teeth had to be removed, and, because he didn't respond well to the local anesthetics used in prior dental procedures he underwent at Hill, Lake wanted an outside dentist to perform the extraction. Dr. Jackson replaced the previous prison dentist who had performed the prior procedures on Lake, and Dr. Jackson insisted that her anesthetic methods would not cause Lake the pain and discomfort he previously experienced, and thus there was no need for him to go to an outside dentist.

Lake, however, was not buying it and refused to let Dr. Jackson perform the extraction. Lake then complained to Wexford that he was suffering needlessly due to Dr. Jackson's refusal to allow an outside dentist to pull his tooth. Dr. Jackson left Hill in late 2014, and Lake agreed to let her successor pull his tooth. Afterward, Lake complained to Wexford that the anesthesia again did not work and that the procedure had been painful.

Based on these facts, the district court dismissed the case, finding that a jury would have to disregard Dr. Jackson’s "professional judgment in predicting that a local anesthetic would enable her to extract the decayed tooth without inflicting significant pain."

On this record, noted the Seventh Circuit, the only "reasonable inference is that Lake, not Dr. Jackson or Wexford, delayed the removal of the decayed tooth." The court ruled that Lake's contention that he had been "diagnosed" with a resistance to local anesthesia was unsupported by the record.

The court finally rejected Lake's argument that the subsequent procedure during which he experienced pain was proof that he was correct that local anesthesia doesn't work on him. "What happened during a procedure conducted by a different dentist is not proof that Dr. Jackson knew that her planned method of anesthetizing Lake's mouth would be unsuccessful or would inflict more pain that an alternative method."

The dismissal by the district court was therefore affirmed and the case dismissed with prejudice. See: Lake v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc., No. 15­2360 (7th Cir. 2017).

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Related legal case

Lake v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc.