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Overmedicated Prisoners: Tough to Prove Says 8th Circuit

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on June 04, 2013 4:40 PM

Prisoners' medical rights is always a hot-button issue. Arkansas inmate Billy Culbertson appealed the district court's dismissal of his 42 U.S.C. § 1983 damage action alleging that he was overmedicated while incarcerated as a pretrial detainee.

The Eighth Circuit sided with the lower court that dismissed the complaint, which sheds light on the evidentiary requirements needed for inmates to prove deliberate indifference to serious medical needs in prison.

Prison officials are obligated under the Eighth Amendment to provide prisoners with adequate medical care. In order to prevail on a constitutional claim of inadequate medical care, prisoners must show that prison officials treated them with deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.

Culbertson claimed that, while under the supervision of the County Sheriff, he was overmedicated by Lonoke County Jail staff from September 2006 to January 2008.

Following an evidentiary hearing on the claim, the magistrate judge concluded that Culbertson failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendants exercised deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.

What is Deliberate Indifference?

A prison official demonstrates "deliberate indifference" when he or she recklessly disregards a substantial risk of harm to the prisoner. It's a pretty high standard that requires a prison official know of and disregard an excessive risk of harm to the prisoner.

In fact, the proof is in the pudding or, as is the case here, in the pill. You can prove deliberate indifference through circumstantial or direct evidence.

Here, Culbertson's sick call requests, medical records, complaints, formal grievances and other records compared to the treatment given could constitute direct evidence of deliberate indifference.

What is a Serious Medical Need?

The Eighth Amendment prohibits the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain."

The Eighth Circuit requires that the inmate show the medical need was objectively obvious and serious and that the official actually knew or had subjective knowledge of the need but deliberately disregarded those needs.

In this case, the issue is being overmedicated. The conscious disregard of a patient's claim that the amount of medication is inappropriate over-medication and the failure to offer adequate talk-therapy are examples of inadequate treatment for a serious medical need.

But after considering testimony from numerous witnesses including Culbertson and the defendant jailers, the magistrate found a lack of evidence, and the district court dismissed the complaint.

Following in step, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court's conclusion that Culbertson failed to prove his allegations that the jail officials' overmedicated Culbertson in a manner that constituted Eighth Amendment deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs.

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