“Our Courts, Our Fight” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties and the need for the Senate to confirm President Biden’s federal court nominees to help counteract these effects. Supreme and appellate court cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Seventh Circuit judges Amy J. St. Eve and Thomas Kirsch threw out a jury verdict of $8 million to a cancer victim who received deficient medical treatment in an Illinois prison that left him with untreated cancer for almost a year and suffering from terminal cancer. The November 2021 decision was in Dean v. Wexford Health Sources Inc.
William Dean first sought medical treatment in December 2015 for blood in his urine along with significant pain. After appointments with several doctors, Dean’s case underwent “collegial review,” a required process before a state prisoner can obtain outside medical care, in which prison doctors converse with outside doctors. A report on the Illinois Department of Correction’s collegial review process later found “breakdowns in almost every area,” leading to delayed and substandard medical care for confined individuals.
In Dean’s case, two doctors recommended that he undergo an ultrasound instead of a CT scan during the collaborative review process. Although ultrasounds are cheaper than CT scans, they have a higher probability of failing to detect cancerous tumors. In fact, the ultrasound failed to reveal that Dean had cancer. It wasn’t until over a month later that Dean finally received a CT scan, which showed he had kidney cancer.
Dean did not receive the required surgery to remove his right kidney for over seven months more due to the slow pace of the collaborative review process, a delay that put his life in serious jeopardy. Although he survived the surgery, it was later discovered he had an additional tumor on his liver that requires further treatment and has left him “terminally ill.” The delays and other problems have also led to long periods of pain and suffering. One doctor on his treatment team later testified that waiting seven months to give a patient with kidney cancer surgery was “virtually unheard of.”
Dean filed a federal lawsuit against the company that contracted with the state and was responsible for the collegial review and his care, Wexford Health Sources, Inc., alleging a violation of his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. He contended that the care he received, including the defective collegial review process, was not just negligent, but also deliberately indifferent to his medical needs. Prior Supreme Court cases establish that such deliberate indifference to prisoners’ medical needs violates the Eighth Amendment. The jury found in favor of Dean, awarding him $1 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages, a sum that the district court later reduced to $7 million.
Wexford sought a judgment of acquittal despite the jury’s verdict, alleging that Dean failed to demonstrate the collegial review process caused his inadequate medical treatment. While the district court rejected Wexford’s arguments, the Seventh Circuit panel ruled in favor of Wexford on appeal and overturned the jury’s verdict, although even they acknowledged the “gravity of Dean’s pain and suffering.” Trump Judge St. Eve, joined by Trump Judge Kirsch, stated that Dean failed to prove Wexford knowingly violated his Eighth Amendment rights because he relied in part on a report critiquing the collaborative review process that postdated his experience. The report therefore could not have given sufficient notice to Wexford of deficiencies within the collaborative review process, and its inclusion biased the jury, claimed St. Eve.
Judge Diane Wood strongly dissented. She explained that it was wrong to throw out the verdict because of the later report, stating that “twelve pages admitted into evidence and subject to a careful limiting instruction” should not make “the difference” in the case and allow the court to “second-guess the jury’s conclusions.” Wood wrote that the majority improperly “collapsed the critical distinction between the existence of a policy and its effects,” by throwing out the later report even though it contains clear evidence of the existence of a pattern of deficient medical treatment and deliberate indifference. The report didn’t bias the jury, Wood stated, because it was combined with “independent” and persuasive witness testimony and other evidence proving that Wexford knowingly violated Dean’s Eighth Amendment rights.
The principle that juries—not judges—should hold the authority to judge the merits of claims for damages made by their fellow residents is embedded in the Constitution. Yet here Trump Judges St. Eve and Kirsch set aside a jury verdict because the jury saw a several-page report that wasn’t even essential to Dean’s case, depriving him of needed sums he could have used to obtain adequate medical treatment. This case reflects the importance of confirming more fair-minded judges who will not substitute their opinions in place of jury verdicts, as part of our fight for our courts.
Note: Andrew Kliewer is a law student fellow at People For the American Way.