The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution states
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
The federal courts have developed a considerable body of law related to prisoner lawsuits alleging an Eighth Amendment violation by medical providers, i.e., the medical care provided to the inmate was so poor it gives rise to a claim of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Typically, fee shifting statutes are involved, which require the losing medical provider to pay the attorneys’ fees of the winning plaintiff.[i] With a large prison population in the United States, almost every medical provider will treat an inmate at some point in his or her career. With this confluence of medicine and prison inmates, corporate and in-house counsel for medical providers need to be aware that these lawsuits can arise.
The application of the Eighth Amendment to inmate medical treatment is grounded on the fundamental notion that the Amendment not only prohibits excessive force, but also requires that prisoners be afforded “humane conditions of confinement,” so that prison officials “ensure that inmates receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.”[ii] While prison conditions are inherently “restrictive and even harsh,” adverse conditions should serve a corrective function.[iii] (internal citations omitted). Eighth Amendment claims may have a broader reach than the phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” may suggest. But, as discussed below, case law describing the standard of behavior proscribed by the Eighth Amendment can afford medical providers faced with Eighth Amendment claims with opportunities for early dismissal. This article will provide pointers for the defense of a typical Eighth Amendment claim. Additionally, this article discusses other applicable doctrines and rules of evidence that are necessarily implicated in prisoner suits, which should not be overlooked.