Wednesday, January 12, 2010
Appeals Court Revives Claim Inmate’s Child Was Denied Medical Care
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal has revived a lawsuit against the state and the operators of a correctional facility which contracted with the state to house female prisoners with young children based on the alleged failure to provide medical care to an inmate’s two-month-old baby.
In its Monday decision, Div. One held that the state and Center Point Inc. were not immune from claims that Denisha Lawson’s daughter Esperanza sustained physical injury from a delay in receiving treatment for a respiratory infection and the mother’s resultant emotional distress.
Lawson had been placed in a 40-bed correctional facility in San Diego run by Center Point while pregnant, and gave birth prematurely to Esperanza in March 2007.
Esperanza allegedly began suffering from “green discharge, labored breathing and an increasingly more ashen complexion” in late April and ceased breathing on at least three occasions.
Lawson claimed that she had asked personnel at the facility to obtain treatment for her daughter for more than a week before an employee took the infant to the hospital.
As a result of the delay in obtaining medical care, Esperanza allegedly suffered “hypoxia, double pneumonia requiring double intubation, cardiac arrest, scarring and injury to both lungs, causing permanent injury which will cause future medical problems.”
Causes of Action
Lawson and Esperanza, by and through her guardian ad litem, subsequently filed suit, asserting causes of action for failing to furnish medical care to a prisoner, negligence, emotional distress and false imprisonment against the state, Center Point and several of their employees. It also alleged violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by the facility.
The state filed a demurrer as to every claim and Center Point demurred to each cause of action except the false imprisonment claim.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Styn sustained the state’s demurrer to except for false imprisonment and sustained Center Point’s demurrer except for the Sec. 1983 claim.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Joan Irion explained that public entities cannot be held liable for injuries to a prisoner unless an employee, acting within the scope of his employment, fails to provide medical care to a prisoner and has reason to know that need for medical care is immediate.
Not a Prisoner
She reasoned that Esperanza was not a prisoner since she only resided in the Center Point facility because her mother was housed there, not because she was the subject of any legal restraint.
However, Irion posited that the child was “in the same situation of dependence and vulnerability as a prisoner” since her mother was confined to the Center Point facility and was unable to take her to a hospital for treatment and so she was “solely dependent on personnel at the facility to obtain the medical care that she required.”
In such a situation, the justice said a special relationship arose that created a duty on the part of jailers at the facility to protect Esperanza from harm by obtaining needed medical care.
No Direct Claim
Irion concluded that the complaint adequately pleaded a cause of action for negligence against the state for the alleged acts and omissions of its employees. But she said that the complaint did not state a direct claim against the state since it failed to identify any mandatory statutory duty which the state itself had breached.
As for Center Point, Irion said that governmental immunity does not apply to private entities working under contract for the state and thus the facility and its employees were not shielded from liability.
Justices James A. McIntyre and Cynthia Aaron joined Irion in her decision directing the trial court to vacate its order and issue new orders overruling the state’s demurrer to Esperanza’s negligence cause of action against the state and Center Point, as well as Lawson’s negligence and emotional distress claims against the facility.
The case is Lawson v. Superior Court (Center Point, Inc.), 10 S.O.S. 126.
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