Supreme Court Rules Doctors Not Liable for Immigrant Detainee’s Death

By Julianne Hing May 03, 2010

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously this afternoon that the family of Francisco Castaneda, a man who was denied medical care while in immigration detention, cannot sue federal public health officials for damages even though the government admitted that medical malpractice led to Castaneda’s death. "The Supreme Court held today that United States Public Health Service officials are totally immune from lawsuits for violating detainees’ constitutional rights," said Arthur Bryant, the executive director of Public Justice, the public interest group that represented Castaneda’s family. Francisco Castaneda was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in March of 2006 at the San Diego Correctional Facility. From the moment he arrived, Castaneda had complained of severe pain in his groin. Doctors who saw Castaneda said he needed a biopsy and treatment for what many suspected was cancer. But for the eleven months that he was in ICE custody, Castaneda filed numerous requests for medical care. He was consistently denied medical attention by United States Public Health Service staff, senior ICE officers and other health officials. Castaneda showed guards his bloody sheets and underwear, and still his requests for treatment were denied. He was given ibuprofen, antihistamines and antibiotics for his pain. In February of 2007, aconsultation with a urologist all but confirmed that he had penile cancer. A week before an appointment for a biopsy that Castaneda was finally allowed to, DHS immediately released him–the federal government was now no longer responsible for paying for his medical treatment. In order to prevent the cancer’s spread, doctors ordered the immediate amputation of his penis, but Castaneda passed away within a year of his surgery. He was 36. A government doctor said in a sworn statement that she knew that the only way to diagnose Castaneda’s condition was with a biopsy, which she did not arrange. The Supreme Court ruled on an appeal from the federal government after a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision. The federal government maintained that under a 1970 law passed by Congress, individual Public Health Service doctors could not be charged individually for their official actions. Public Justice has filed several lawsuits against other entities who were responsible for Castaneda’s care. "The case is far from over," said Bryant. "We will keep fighting for the Castaneda family. We’ll fully pursue our lawsuit against the federal government under the Federal Tort Claims act and we’ll also pursue our lawsuit against the state of California and the state health officials who deprived Castaneda of appropriate medical care while he was held in state custody." "Today’s ruling is a disappointment and yet another missed opportunity to bring about the meaningful reforms that our nation’s immigration detention system desperately needs," said Gabriel Eber, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, said in a press release. "With today’s decision, the Supreme Court has unfortunately closed the door on an important avenue of accountability for the gross mistreatment that immigration detainees across the country have suffered." A similar federal court case involving the death of Hui Liu Ng, a 34-year-old man whose own cancer went undiagnosed while he was in immigration detention, is currently underway in Rhode Island. Ng complained of severe back pain and was also denied medical care. An autopsy later showed that he had a fractured spine and cancer throughout his body.