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Federal Prison Inmate's Appeal Denied, No Right to Counsel

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By Kelly Cheung on May 31, 2013 1:01 PM

A federal prison inmate’s appeal on a medical malpractice claim was rejected by the Tenth Circuit. The court also rejected the inmate’s right to counsel argument in his case against the hospital and doctor who treated him.

Louis Darryl Tarantola sustained injuries to his head and face in a prison altercation. He was then treated by Dr. George Speer at Cushing Memorial Hospital, but Tarantola claims that the doctor knowingly and deliberately provided him substandard medical care leading to disfigurement and permanent scars.

The district court denied Tarantola's request for counsel. In the court proceedings, Tarantola represented himself as a pro se party. He failed to provide expert witnesses when the court requested it. The court noted that expert witness testimony is generally required to establish the standard of care and to prove causation in a medical malpractice claim.

The court denied Tarantola's claim that the common knowledge exception applied to his case to eliminate a need for an expert witness. The procedures and whether the scarring was a common experience required an expert to testify. The Tenth Circuit, looking to Perkins v. Susan B. Allen Mem'l Hosp, agreed and affirmed the summary judgment in favor of the doctor and hospital.

Tarantola also argued that the court abused its discretion in not appointing him counsel. First, the court found there was is a much higher degree of legal sophistication in Tarantola's filings than what is generally found in pro se parties. Second, there must be an extreme case presenting special circumstances to warrant appointing counsel that is not present in Tarantola's case. The Tenth Circuit notes one case, McCarthy v. Weinberg, of a party who was "a wheel-chair bound prisoner with multiple sclerosis and diminished eyesight, hearing, and ability to communicate, and who needed to present complex medical issues."

The court found that Tarantola's circumstances were not so extreme as to justify appointing counsel. The court added that simply because appointing counsel would have helped strengthen his case is not a good argument. The court states that if that were enough, then every pro se party would argue and then be entitled to an appointed counsel to help them present a stronger case. The Tenth Circuit will not have that.

Tarantola may have been capable enough to argue his case for not needing expert witnesses, but was he really provided fair access to the court? The court did not find a fundamental unfairness in Tarantola's case in either the presentation, or the outcome.

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