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Illinois Prisoner Wins Partial Victory on Appeal in Hernia Treatment Suit

by Ed Lyon

On July 26, 2019, a panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part a district court’s judgment as a matter of law against Illinois prisoner Gregory Wilson, who had filed suit against for-profit medical care provider Wexford Health Sources.

Wilson claimed that sometime in the 1990s he developed an inguinal hernia, which ebbed but recurred in 2011. He said the hernia was painful but medical staff consistently refused to listen to his complaints.

A successful surgical intervention was performed in September 2014. For the three years of pain and suffering he was forced to endure prior to the surgery, Wilson sued Wexford, doctors Imhotep Carter and Saleh Obaisi, and physician assistant (PA) LaTanya Williams for being deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs contrary to the Eighth Amendment.

The district court dismissed Dr. Carter due to the statute of limitations prior to discovery. At a pre-trial hearing, the court excluded several hearsay reports and forbade any respondeat superior liability theories. After Wilson’s case went to a jury trial, the defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law. The district court granted their motion and dismissed the case prior to a jury verdict. Wilson appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the statute of limitations ruling, as Dr. Carter had left Wexford’s employ and the Stateville prison in May 2012, well over two years before Wilson filed suit on August 31, 2016. Even under a theory of an ongoing denial of care, Carter’s alleged ability to treat Wilson ceased when he left in 2012. The two state savings statute/tolling rules that Wilson argued on appeal, 735 ILCS 5/13-217 and 735 ICLS 5/13-216, were factually inapplicable to his claims.

The Court of Appeals also affirmed the district court’s dismissal of PA Williams. Even though Williams did not refer Wilson for surgery, she did recommend what the Court felt was a “reasonable treatment option.” Since Wilson had no medical experts testifying for him at trial, he was unable to meet the burden of showing “a serious deficit” in Williams’ treatment.

The district court’s dismissal of Dr. Obaisi turned on the issue of whether his medical notes concerning Wilson were as complete as they should have been. Between spring and summer 2012 and on December 3 of that year, Wilson sent letters to prison medical staff requesting treatment for his hernia and complaining of “serious pain.” On January 10, 2013, Dr. Obaisi saw Wilson but refused to discuss his hernia. The doctor died before trial, so his deposition testimony, where he swore to keeping diligent notes yet had no specific memory of that appointment, was admitted.

In February 2014, Dr. Obaisi had notated a grievance Wilson filed about his hernia. The appellate court concluded that “a reasonable jury could believe Wilson’s testimony over Dr. Obaisi’s insistence over the completeness of his notes.... If the jury further credited Wilson’s records and testimony about his later complaints, Dr. Obaisi not only knew about the hernia in January 2013, but he inexplicably never followed up on it despite his knowledge of ongoing and unaddressed pain.”

Finding no error with the district court’s pre-trial rulings, including as to respondeat superior liability, the judgment was affirmed except for the dismissal of Dr. Obaisi. The case currently remains pending on remand. See: Wilson v. Wexford Health Sources, Wilson v. Wexford Health Sources

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Related legal case

Wilson v. Wexford Health Sources