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Alaska Supreme Court Upholds Dismissal of Delusional Prisoner’s Medical Malpractice Claim

Adam Israel had been in custody of the state Department of Corrections (DOC) since 2005 for the stabbing death of his mother. Based on a clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia – he claimed that family members, possibly including comedian Steve Martin, had conspired to keep him in state custody to prevent him from testifying to rapes and murders they had committed – he was held in a mental institution.

In October 2014, he filed a pro se medical malpractice lawsuit, claiming that he was “fraudulently diagnosed” as schizophrenic, and that this had prevented him from release on parole and other rehabilitative progress. He said the delusions he suffers are actually real, claiming that he could see electro-magnetic fields emitted from “poltergeists” because of a genetic mutation resulting from family inbreeding.

Israel asked the court to allow him to demonstrate, but Superior Court Judge Frank Pfiffner called his testimony “bizarre and, at least from a lay perspective, consistent with that of someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.” He concluded that Israel’s explanation about his reported delusions “does not reflect reality.”

The court then granted the state’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Israel had failed to provide expert testimony to support his claims in the face of summary judgment.

Under Alaska law, anyone claiming medical malpractice usually provides an expert’s testimony in support of their claims, most often by attaching an affidavit to their complaint. But when the negligence is evident to a lay person, no expert is needed, because the claim is then not considered one of a technical nature. Israel provided no such expert testimony, arguing that his claim to extra-normal perception could not be disproved using current technology anyway. The court found that it could not accept his claim without proof – or at least corroboration from an expert – and dismissed his motion. Israel appealed.

In its review of the case, the state Supreme Court concluded that summary judgment was proper because the defendant (the state in this case) had shown an absence of a factual dispute on a “material fact,” and that this absence constituted failure of proof of an “essential element” to support Israel’s lawsuit. The Court allowed that it “assumed without deciding” that Israel was correct that he didn’t need an expert, but then it found that the “unrebutted correctness of Israel’s diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia” foreclosed his malpractice claim.

On what did the Court base its finding? Because “Israel provided no psychiatric expert testimony to raise a genuine issue of material fact that the DOC’s psychiatrist’s diagnosis was incorrect.” In other words, despite granting Israel the assumption that he didn’t need an expert to be convinced, the Court did. It said it was unable to accept his argument – that he was not delusional, just exceptional – without hearing from an expert who agreed. Without providing that testimony, Israel failed to overcome summary judgment, since the Court said it had no choice but to conclude that Judge Pfiffner’s determination – that Israel’s visions were really delusions - was proper, given the facts before the court.

The Court also affirmed Judge Pfiffner’s denial of Israel’s motion to “compel” discovery from DOC, since he didn’t make any efforts to contact DOC for discovery before filing the motion to compel it. Though allowing that judges are required to construe pro se filings “liberally” in order to do justice, the Court said that “a self-represented litigant must make a good-faith effort to comply with the Civil Rules or inform the court of difficulties in complying.”

The Court wrapped up its ruling by affirming the Superior Court’s order that Israel must reimburse the state for its attorney fees, in this case $5,600.00, since he did not file his claim as a constitutional issue but only as a malpractice issue — leaving him liable for the state’s requested attorneys’ fees as the losing party.

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Related legal case

Israel v. Department of Correction