Court Finds Federal Government, Health Officials Negligent in Care of Injured Immigration Detainee
A federal court in California Wednesday held the United States government liable for failing to give adequate medical care to a former immigration detainee whose small cut turned into a painful, gangrenous wound that threatened amputation of his leg.
The court awarded $250,000 in damages — the maximum for certain medical negligence claims in California — to Martin Hernandez Banderas, 45, of Perris, Calif., who slipped on a bathroom floor at the San Diego Correctional Facility in December 2006, suffering a small cut on his right ankle.
Within a week of the mishap, Banderas’ foot began to hurt and swell significantly, but his repeated requests for medical assistance were ignored. When he was finally seen at the center’s medical clinic, Banderas’ foot was numb and severely infected. Blood work revealed that Banderas was diabetic, but rather than sending him to a specialist, the medical staff provided treatment that did not control the infection, his pain, or his insulin levels, and sent him back to his cell.
As Banderas’ condition continued to deteriorate, his cell mates went on a hunger strike, hoping to force officials to give Banderas the treatment he desperately needed. By the time he was finally sent to a hospital — two months after the initial injury — Banderas had developed gangrene in his right leg, opting for a series of surgeries rather than amputation.
The “horrendous scar” on Banderas’ leg, wrote the court, “essentially looks like a shark bit off a piece of Plaintiff’s leg.”
“This verdict is another indictment of the decrepit immigration detention system that has caused unnecessary suffering to thousands of innocent victims,” said Conal Doyle, who led the Public Justice legal team. “The verdict is a vindication for Mr. Banderas and a recognition of his loss.”
The case bears disturbing similarities to that of Francisco Castaneda, another immigration detainee who died in 2008 from penile cancer that was inadequately treated by some of the same health officials responsible for Banderas’ treatment.
In both cases, the detainees were abruptly released when it became clear that their conditions were serious and that proper medical care would be costly.
And in both, Public Justice brought medical neglect claims against the U.S. government, based in part on the conduct of Dr. Esther Hui, a former employee of the U.S. Public Health Service who is now treating U.S. veterans. The court found that Dr. Hui “failed to use the level of skill, knowledge, and care in diagnosis and treatment that a reasonably careful physician would have used in similar circumstances.”
“Regrettably, Dr. Hui’s negligent care of Banderas and Castaneda is emblematic of the health care provided throughout our country’s immigration detention facilities,” said Public Justice Managing Attorney Adele Kimmel, co-counsel for Banderas. “How many deaths, life-altering injuries, and medical neglect findings is it going to take before our government truly reforms this badly broken system?”
California caps non-economic damages in medical negligence claims at $250,000 under the Medical Injury Compensation Reform Act (MICRA). The court noted that Banderas’ pain and suffering, and the damage done to his leg, “warrant an award substantially over the MICRA limits.” The court was nonetheless constrained by the law’s damages cap.