Court of Appeals: Negligence Claims Can’t Be Constitutionalized

At Chapman Law Group, we regularly represent and defend physicians, nurses, and other health care practitioners in state and federal civil trials. These cases involve civil rights matters, medical malpractice allegations, and questions of whether governmental immunity applies in particular instances.

In some of these cases, our attorneys have witnessed — and have often times fought against — a frequently argued plaintiff’s claim: that a doctor or other medical professional showed “deliberate indifference” to a serious medical need, to the point that it rises to the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

But are allegations of negligence, gross negligence or “an inadvertent failure to provide adequate medical care” really at the level of cruel and unusual punishment?

Chapman Law Group’s Wedad Suleiman argued they are not — and, in an April 9, 2020, opinion, the Michigan Court of Appeals agreed, saying allegations that sound in negligence can’t be constitutionalized under the veil of the Eighth Amendment.

Plaintiff’s Allegations of Deliberate Indifference

In Fratarcangeli v. Myers, et al., Plaintiff, a 64-year-old man, was detained in Oakland County Jail for 11 hours after driving erratically. He alleged that during incarceration, jail deputies failed to provide him with proper medication, food or water, despite his telling them he was diabetic.

Our clients, Philip Durocher, MD, and Danielle Veatch, LPN, are medical personnel with Wellpath, who is contracted to provide medical services at the Oakland County Jail. Durocher gave the oral order via telephone to treat Plaintiff’s diabetes with insulin and to check his blood sugar. Veatch, the jail nurse, administered the insulin.

Plaintiff argued Durocher and Veatch gave him diabetes medication he was not accustomed to taking, and that medical personnel knew or should have known that the medication they administered needed to be ingested with food. Plaintiff alleges that he was not provided with food or water. Ms. Suleiman filed a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(8), arguing that the factual allegations made by Plaintiff were clearly unenforceable as a matter of law and no factual development could justify recovery.

However, the lower court ruled that “genuine issues of material fact” existed “from which the inference could be drawn that substantial risk of serious harm existed[ed] and the Defendants ignored that risk,” thus subjecting Plaintiff to cruel and unusual punishment under 42 USC § 1983.

The Oakland County Co-Defendants filed a claim of appeal by right, to which Plaintiff filed his cross appeal, which included claims against Durocher and Veatch. By way of Plaintiff’s cross appeal, Ms. Suleiman was able to file a further cross appeal arguing that the lower court had erred in not granting her Motion for Summary Disposition in full.

Court of Appeals Rejects Lower Court Findings

In the Court of Appeals decision, the panel wrote that “[t]he Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment is violated when a prison official is deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of harm to an inmate. Johnson v Wayne Co, 213 Mich App 143, 152; 540 NW2d 66 (1995).” [Emphasis added.]

To be “deliberately indifferent,” the panel continued, “the defendant must have either ‘intentionally denied or unreasonably delayed treatment of a discomfort-causing ailment or willfully failed to provide prescribed treatment without medical justification.’ Tobias v Phelps, 144 Mich App 272, 277-278; 375 NW2d 365 (1985).”

However, a complaint “that a physician has been negligent in diagnosing and treating a medical condition does not state a valid claim of medical mistreatment under the Eighth Amendment. [Estelle v Gamble, 429 US 97, 104; 97 S Ct 285; 50 L Ed 2d 251 (1976).]” Because of this, “neither negligence nor gross negligence rise to the level of deliberate indifference for Eighth Amendment purposes … nor is medical malpractice sufficient to demonstrate deliberate indifference.”

Plaintiff argued that Durocher and Veatch “should have known that he needed food and water for the insulin to be effective.” Yet, his claim that Durocher and Veatch “failed to take the correct steps to address his diabetes sounds in negligence and suggests a malpractice theory; it is insufficient to establish cruel and unusual punishment and may not serve as a basis for a § 1983 claim. [Morden v Grand Traverse Co, 275 Mich App 325, 332; 738 NW2d 278 (2007).]”

‘Cruel and Unusual’ versus ‘Cruel or Unusual’

The opinion also points out a key difference in how state law can differ greatly from federal constitutional law.

The panel noted that Durocher and Veatch were entitled to dismissal of Plaintiff’s claim under the Michigan Constitution, and, “[a]lthough the United States Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, the Michigan Constitution prohibits cruel or unusual punishment.”

Putting “or” in place instead of “and” means the statue “may be interpreted more broadly than the federal prohibition … and therefore may provide a claim where one does not exist under the federal constitution.”

The appellate court ultimately determined Plaintiff did not allege a broader construction in this case, “and because the analysis under 42 USC § 1983 results in the conclusion that plaintiff has not alleged a valid claim of cruel and unusual punishment, the same analysis applies under the Michigan Constitution.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed with the arguments advanced by Ms. Suleiman, and the County counsel, and affirmed the trial court’s grant of partial summary disposition for all Defendants, and reversed the trial court’s denial of summary disposition of the remaining counts of Plaintiff’s complaint, thus dismissing the action in its entirety.

When It Comes to Civil Litigation for Healthcare Providers, Turn to Chapman Law Group

We at Chapman Law Group have a unique advantage when it comes to civil rights litigation involving the decisions of our health care providers on the state and federal levels. We are able to identify fatal deficiencies in pleadings that save our clients precious time and resources. Because we are health care law attorneys first and foremost, we understand how simple negligence or gross negligence apply to licensed medical professionals in private and municipal practice.

Our experience at trial and on appeal have led to reversals, dismissals and summary judgment for local governmental entities and the private health care corporations contracted to them.

Let us put our know-how to work for you. Contact us today.

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