Monday, January 7, 2013
A split three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled today in Peralta v. Dillard that a trial judge can give a jury an instruction to consider sparse prison resources as part of its deliberation over a prisoner civil rights suit against a prison dentist for lack of adequate dental care.
The ruling came after a prisoner brought a 1983 suit for violation of his Eighth Amendment rights against a prison dentist for failing to provide adequate and timely dental care. The judge gave the jury an instruction that jurors "must . . . consider . . . the context of the personnel, financial, and other resources available . . ." and "[a] doctor or dentist is not responsible for services which he or she could not render or cause to be rendered because the necessary personnel, financial, and other resources were not available to him or her or which he or she could not reasonably obtain."
The majority explained:
For example, suppose, as here, the established standard is 1 dentist for every 950 inmates, but the dentist must work at a 1 dentist for every 4200-4500 inmates ratio. Is the individual dentist to be held responsible because he cannot give proper care to the inmates, that is, he cannot reasonably respond to the risk of harm that those underserved inmates face when dental problems occur or are about to occur? We think not.
Op. at 8.
The majority was quick to say, however, that a plaintiff might have a claim for damages against the government entity itself, when that entity incarcerates individuals but refuses to provide the proper funds. A plaintiff might also have an action for injunctive or declaratory relief.
Judge Berzon issued a sharp dissent, arguing that the majority misread circuit law and that given the facts a reasonable juror could have concluded that the dentist satisfied the elements for an Eighth Amendment violation.