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Seventh Circuit Says Medical Malpractice Is Not a Constitutional Violation

by Jacob Barrett

On June 27, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed summary judgment for Illinois prison officials who delayed a prisoner’s appendicitis treatment until he needed emergency surgery. Incredibly, though acknowledging the treatment he received was subpar, the Court said it did not rise to a constitutional violation.

Almost anyone who has endured appendicitis will recognize Dana Brown’s symptoms. He was held by the state Department of Corrections at Illinois River Correctional Center in February 2017 when he began experiencing abdominal pain. When he finally reported “back pain [at] nine out of ten on the pain scale with groin discomfort,” the Court later recalled, Brown sought medical treatment. Yet despite the severity of his symptoms, prison medical staff prescribed nothing but over-the-counter pain medication and sent Brown back to his cell.

Still the pain intensified. Brown next had to be taken back to the prison’s infirmary, where he remained for three more days while medical staff observed his worsening symptoms. When his vomit was “bright yellow with ... brown colored flecks” and “his abdomen became distended and firm,” the Court recalled, Brown was finally transported to a local hospital. There he was diagnosed with appendicitis and had emergency surgery to remove his appendix.

Brown then brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing prison medical staff of violating his Eighth Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, he alleged that his condition should have been treated sooner with much less invasive laparoscopy instead of the more invasive surgery he endured. By their dithering and incompetent failure to catch his appendicitis before his appendix ruptured, prison staff demonstrated deliberate indifference to his serious medical need, he said.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois disagreed and granted summary judgment to defendant prison officials. Brown appealed, but the Eighth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

The Court began by allowing that appendicitis “is an ‘objectively serious medical condition,’” which if not treated can result in a perforated or ruptured appendix. However, the Court found Brown had not “presented sufficient evidence to permit a trier of fact to find that the defendants were ‘deliberately indifferent’ towards his medical needs.”

Really? That’s right, the Court said. It noted that Brown was placed in observation in the prison medical unit, receiving vital checks, painkillers, a blood count, metabolic panel, and urinalysis. “Even an emergency-room physician,” the Court wrote, “noted that Brown’s symptoms were general and not particularly specific.”

Moreover, even if medical staff was negligent, the Court said that it did not “persist[] ‘in a course of treatment known to be ineffective’” – the standard it looked to for Eighth Amendment violations in prisoner medical complaints.

“Brown may have received subpar care in the prison’s infirmary,” the Court allowed, but “medical malpractice is not a constitutional violation.”

With that, the judgment of the district court was affirmed. Brown was represented before the Court by Chicago attorney Patrick G. Simonaitis of Winston & Strawn LLP. See: Brown v. Osmundson, 38 F.4th 545 (7th Cir. 2022).

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