Federal Appeals Court Redefines Standard for Section 1983 Jail Medical Care Claims

September 11, 2018

In Miranda v. County of Lake, No. 17-1603 (7th Cir. Aug. 10, 2018), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals adopted a standard of “objective reasonableness” in assessing federal civil rights claims brought by pretrial detainees based on the adequacy of medical care in local jails.  The Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause governs denial-of-medical-care claims by convicted prisoners, while the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause governs such claims by pretrial detainees. Previously, the Seventh Circuit, like other courts nationwide, had long treated the civil liability standards as identical. But Miranda held that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Kingsley v. Hendrickson, 135 S. Ct. 2466 (2015), requires the standards to be treated differently. Miranda held that pretrial detainees bringing such claims need only show that a jail officer’s conduct was “objectively unreasonable,” unlike convicted prisoners, who must prove that the officer was subjectively aware of the risk to the plaintiff’s health.

The change in standards should not have a profound effect on jail litigation where there is a defined division of labor within a jail for a prisoner’s access to medical care.  In such situations, Miranda did not change the longstanding principle that non-medical personnel may reasonably rely on the judgment of medical professionals.  Miranda held that an inmate must show that the jail officer failed to take reasonable measures to abate a substantial risk to the inmate where a reasonable officer under the same circumstances would have appreciated that risk, making the consequences of the officer’s actions obvious.  The court in Miranda was careful to note that this “objective” standard means more than negligence or even gross negligence, but less than subjective intent.  The standard is “more akin to reckless disregard.”  Therefore, providing the inmate with access to medical care through the jail nurse and/or doctor would appear to meet the “objective reasonableness” test in most circumstances.

Miranda v. County of Lake

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