Dennis McKeithan is serving a 50+ year sentence in Pennsylvania's SCI Houtzdale prison facility that houses roughly 2,500 inmates. He filed a claim against the contracted medical provider for failing to treat a condition he has known as eczema, which causes the skin to itch and become inflamed. The claim was filed in Clearfield County where the judge labeled the suit as “frivolous” and said McKeithan failed to submit the necessary certificate of merit signed by a medical expert and dismissed the case. The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently reviewed the matter and has ordered the judge to reevaluate the claim.
Medical Malpractice Claim or Violation of Constitutional Rights?
The panel of Superior Court judges feels the county court judge misunderstood the basis for the claim. They believe the claim was not formally a medical malpractice action, but rather that the defendants had violated his Eighth Amendment rights by demonstrating indifference. The violation of rights claim does not require a medical expert's certification. The lower court should have addressed whether the defendant exhibited deliberate indifference in initially assessing the merit of the claim.
Superior Court Explanation
The Superior Court felt that the claim was not frivolous and did not require the certificate of merit. They instructed the judge to rule on whether the plaintiff suffers from a “serious condition” and if the defendants were deliberately indifferent. In addition, the court found that this “revised” type of rights violation action is required to be heard in a Commonwealth Court.
Estelle v Gamble (1976)
The U.S. Supreme Court clarified in Estelle v Gamble what must be proven when a prisoner asserts their Eighth Amendment rights are violated. This violation means that the facility was deliberately indifferent to the “serious medical needs” of the inmate. The action must involve the intentional denial or delay of proper medical treatment. The court explained that expert testimony may not be necessary to determine the existence of a medical need that is serious.
The Supreme Court further clarified the difference between a “complete denial of medical care and…inadequate medical treatment”. If medical care was actually performed an Eighth Amendment violation would not apply. A claim of medical malpractice is appropriate for instances where the level of care was substandard. An Eighth Amendment (deliberate indifference) violation must also show the defendant acted with intent.
In this case, the county court called the suit frivolous. Frivolous litigation has been a focal point in recent years:
- When a claim has no merit the court may issue fines to those bringing the action
- Plaintiffs and their counsel who bring frivolous claims may be held in contempt of court
- The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require attorneys to assess that a “factual basis” exists to affirm the claim's legitimacy
- Frivolous claims are often those that seek large damages although the plaintiff's losses or injuries were minimal
- Those advocating for tort reform measures typically cite frivolous claims as a leading reasoning for stricter limits and filing requirements
The plaintiff in this case claimed to suffer from atopic dermatitis (eczema). Sufferers experience inflammation resulting in skin that itches and becomes red. The cause is largely attributed to heredity and is most commonly seen in children. Inflammation may be triggered by stress, heat, sweat, and exposure to materials such as wool and certain soaps. Current treatment options include oral medication, steroid-based ointments (creams) and therapy using light.