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Seventh Circuit Appeals Court Upholds Ruling Against Wisconsin Prisoner’s Medical Negligence Claim

A Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on October 29, 2019 that there was a rational basis for the jury to determine that nurse Angela McLean and guard Joseph Cichanowicz did not violate prisoner James Lewis’ constitutional rights by delaying medical assistance, and that the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin did not err in its ruling against Lewis.

Lewis filed suit for deliberate indifference and medical malpractice against the defendants in 2014. He claimed that on the morning of February 8 of that year he awoke with paralyzing pain. After much time sitting in his bunk, unable to move, Lewis finally hit the call button for assistance.

Cichanowicz and McLean came but refused to help Lewis because he would not stick his hands out the trap door to be cuffed for transport. It was not until an hour and a half later when Lewis fell to the floor trying to get to the door that help was sent to take him to the hospital.

Lewis’ original medical malpractice claim was dismissed, and the defendants were granted summary judgment. Lewis appealed and was granted a rehearing with an appointment of counsel. He also was given the opportunity to bring up his malpractice claim if he wished. He did so, but on a pro se motion, which the court told him he could not do while he had counsel appointed. His counsel later withdrew this motion.

Cichanowicz and McLean both testified that they did not consider Lewis’ inability to move a medical emergency. He had a clear airway, was talking and breathing, and he was not paralyzed since he could move his extremities. Also, since he was able to reach the call button he should have been able to reach the trap door to be cuffed.

Cichanowicz said he had to consider the possibility that Lewis would later voluntarily be cuffed or that he had created a “setup” for the guards. Hence, he chose to wait to see what Lewis would do.

The jury was instructed to assume that Lewis could not move between 5:15 a.m., the time he awoke and sat up in bed, to 7:12 a.m., when he was first able to reach the call button for help.

The tape recording of his cell during this period was not preserved due to spoliation. Nonetheless, the jury ruled in favor of the defendants.

Lewis filed a pro se motion to set aside this verdict, claiming the court erred in denying his motion to represent himself, not allowing him to conduct McLean’s cross-examination, and not determining that the manifest weight of the evidence did not support the verdict.

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Related legal case

Lewis v. McLean