Defending 8th Amendment Claims Against Medical Providers

Published in the DRI In-House Quarterly Magazine

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.