Seventh Circuit Review


Prisoners who believe their constitutional rights were violated through deficient medical care can pursue a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To prevail on this claim, the prisoner must show that a medical provider acted with deliberate indifference towards a serious medical condition. Ordinary medical negligence is not a constitutional claim simply because the victim is a prisoner. Yet, circuits are split on exactly what physician behavior constitutes deliberate indifference. Courts have given varying degrees of deference to a physician's case-specific medical determination. Courts debate whether palliative care—relieving pain without an effort to cure—is enough; and whether constitutionalizing medical malpractice may have negative consequences on prison health care systems.

In Petties v. Carter, the Seventh Circuit considered whether a physician's rationale for medical treatment created a triable issue as to whether or not he acted with deliberate indifference. The plaintiff suffered from a ruptured Achilles' tendon. Standard treatment protocol for this injury includes, among other things, receiving a splint, which serves to immobilize the foot. The plaintiff alleged that, in not prescribing a splint, the defendants exacerbated his injury. However, the defendants contended that they were not deliberately indifferent; rather than using a splint, they decided to immobilize Petties' foot through use of crutches, lay-in meals, and a lower bunk assignment.

The Seventh Circuit, in a 6-3 decision, reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants. This Note argues that the Seventh Circuit's reversal failed to adequately defer to: 1) precedent precluding from liability actors who demonstrate a reasonable response to risk of injury, 2) public policy support for respecting case-specific medical judgment, and 3) state medical malpractice laws, which are more equitable and efficient in addressing claims of deficient medical care.

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