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Court Won’t Kill Suit Against Prison Medical Director in Indiana

October 29, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today refused to kill a lawsuit against the medical director of a federal prison in Indiana accused of deliberately neglecting the health needs of inmates.

The court, without comment, let stand a ruling that the official may be sued by the heirs of a prisoner who died after an asthma attack.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Dr. Robert Brutsche, the medical director, is not automatically immune from being sued over Joseph Jones’ death in 1975.

The appeals court said that by 1975 prison officials were on notice that depriving inmates of adequate health care was a violation of their rights, even though there was no nationwide legal precedent on the issue then.

″We believe that a failure to correct systemic deficiencies in the delivery of health care services at a prison violated clearly established law in 1975,″ the appeals court said. ″A clear trend in the case law″ then showed ″a controlling precedent was merely a question of time,″ the appeals court said.

Jones died soon after he was admitted to the Terre Haute prison hospital with difficulty breathing. Robert DeGracias, the prison doctor, prescribed a drug over the telephone and ordered Jones sent to a local civilian hospital.

Jones was the fourth inmate at Terre Haute who died of medical causes during the first eight months of 1975.

After Jones died, Brutsche ordered an investigation that led him to recommend improved medical care for inmates.

Jones’ mother sued, accusing Brutsche and DeGracias of deliberate indifference to her son’s health.

A federal judge refused to dismiss the suit, ruling there were numerous questions to be answered about care of inmates in life-threatening emergencies.

The 7th Circuit court noted that in 1982, the Supreme Court held that public officials are shielded from suit unless they violate a clearly established right.

The appeals court said in Brutsche’s case there were at least three federal appeals court rulings that indicated ″a clear consensus had been reached that a prison official’s failure to remedy systemic deficiencies in medical services ... constituted deliberate indifference.″

The Bush administration urged the Supreme Court to reject Brutsche’s appeal, even though it said it disagrees with the appeals court ruling.

Justice Department lawyers said further examination of the case by lower courts could be helpful. For example, the government said, Brutsche should not be made a scapegoat if there is evidence the conditions at Terre Haute were caused by a scarcity of competent personnel.

The high court on Oct. 15 agreed to study a related issue surrounding immunity for public officials from such suits. The issue in that case is whether the suits must be dismissed at the outset when the alleged official misconduct is based largely on a subjective interpretation of events by those doing the suing.

The case acted on today is Brutsche, vs. Cleveland-Perdue, 89-1167.

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