A federal judge ruled Wednesday that a former Colorado prison inmate who sued three prison workers claiming a lack of medical attention resulted in the stillbirth of her fetus can pursue her lawsuit despite arguments that her case was barred under federal law.
U.S. District Judge John Kane said Pamela Clifton's injury was significant enough that she was entitled to sue two prison officers and a nurse.
Defense attorney Thomas Lyons had asked Kane to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act prohibited Clifton from seeking damages because it bars lawsuits by an inmate who did not suffer a physical injury.
Kane said in his ruling some courts have determined that just the pain of prolonged labor can be considered a physical injury that would allow a lawsuit under the prison litigation law. The fact that Clifton's fetus was stillborn strengthened her claim, he said.
"In the matter at hand, because the damage inflicted by the alleged violation is terminal and irreversible, and because no relief, if not damages, is available to (Clifton), who is no longer incarcerated, the (Prison Litigation Reform Act) should not operate to bar her claim," the judge said.
Clifton, who now lives in Denver, was an inmate at the state Department of Corrections' Women's Correctional Facility in Canon City and was eight months' pregnant when she went into labor on Christmas Eve 1998, the ruling said. Four days earlier, a doctor had determined the pregnancy was normal, the ruling said.
Clifton's lawsuit, filed in December 2000, said when she told guard Dawn Anaya that she was in labor that morning, Anaya sent her back to her unit. A few hours later, Clifton told guard Ira Wilks that she was in labor, but he also sent her back to her unit, the lawsuit said.
After she requested help a third time, another guard sent her to the prison's medical unit, where nurse Ilona Eubanks determined the labor was a "false alarm" and sent Clifton back to her unit without using a fetal heart monitor, the ruling said.
The next day, another guard sent Clifton back to the medical unit, where officials sent her to a hospital. Doctors there determined the fetus had died and Clifton underwent stillbirth, the ruling said.
Anaya, Wilks and Eubanks are defendants in the case. Their attorney, Lyons, declined comment.
Clifton's attorney, Mari Newman, said the lawsuit seeks whatever damages a federal jury determines is appropriate. She said the ruling will have reverberations beyond Colorado.
"It's important not only for prisoner's rights, but also for women's rights," Newman said. "It's an issue of national concern. There's a real split in the (federal appeals courts) about how the issue has been addressed."
Kane's ruling carves out an exception to the Prison Litigation Reform Act for cases in which the physical injury suffered by an inmate is labor and the death of a viable fetus, Newman said.
The case is No. 00CV2555.