Federal doctors safe from suit, justices say

By Jesse J. Holland
Associated Press / May 4, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the family of a now-deceased immigrant who was denied medical care for cancer while in custody cannot sue federal medical officials for damages.

The law clearly states that the federal government, not individual federal medical personnel, must be the defendant in lawsuits arising out of claims of harm by federal employees during the course of their official duties, the high court ruled in a unanimous decision.

“We are required . . . to read the statute according to its text,’’ said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing for the court.

Salvadoran immigrant Francisco Castaneda was denied a biopsy for a penis lesion while in prison in California, despite outside specialists’ recommendations. According to his attorneys, Castaneda was treated with ibuprofen, antihistamines, and antibiotics and was given extra boxer shorts.

The federal government has admitted liability for medical negligence. But Castaneda and his estate also sued individual US Public Health Service medical officials for damages.

The government says its medical personnel have absolute immunity against lawsuits for their official actions.

Congress in 1970 passed a law that gave immunity to Public Health Service doctors who treat immigrants in detention. Under that law, Castaneda’s survivors can sue the federal government only under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which bars jury trials and punitive damages and limits economic damages to those allowed under state law.

A federal judge and the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit refused to throw out the lawsuit, however. The high court reversed that decision.

Castaneda spent eight months in state prison after being convicted in 2005 of possessing methamphetamine with intent to distribute. He complained about the lesion while at the San Diego Correctional Facility, and again when he was transferred to immigration custody in San Pedro, Calif., because he was in the United States illegally.

Castaneda informed Immigration and Customs Enforcement staff in 2006 that a “lesion on his penis was becoming painful and growing,’’ a federal judge said. But a government doctor would not admit him to a hospital, calling a biopsy “an elective outpatient procedure.’’

After the American Civil Liberties Union complained in 2007, a doctor performed a biopsy and said Castaneda probably had cancer. His penis was amputated after he was diagnosed with metastatic squamous cell carcinoma, but he died a year later.

Also yesterday, the Supreme Court decided to let stand a ruling saying the Boy Scouts cannot lease city-owned parkland in San Diego because the group is a religious organization.

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