Family of Immigrant May Seek Punitive Damages


In California, the family of a deceased illegal immigrant has been given the green light to go forward with a personal injury lawsuit against the government by a federal judge. The ruling is unusual because federal law usually limits damages in cases against the federal government to $250,000 and jury trials are not allowed. However, in this case that cap will not apply and a jury will hear this tragic story.

U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson of Los Angeles found that the allegations against the federal government in the case, if true, amount to more than simply medical malpractice and that if the accusations are proven, the immigrant's constitutional rights had been intentionally violated by government doctors.

Francisco Castaneda's family alleges that he was denied treatment for cancer for 11 months while in custody at immigration detention centers in California. The lawsuit claims that when immigration officials finally had no choice but to admit that he had cancer, they released him rather than pay for his medical care. By the time Castaneda was released and was able to get treatment for his cancer, it was too late to save his life. He died last year.

Castaneda came to the United States with his mother when he was 10 years old. They fled the civil war in El Salvador and entered the country illegally. Unfortunately, Castaneda became involved with drugs and in 2005 was convicted of possession of methamphetamine. He spent eight months in jail before being transferred to an immigrant detention center to wait for deportation hearings and to be heard on his claim for political asylum.

In December 2005, while he was still in jail, a doctor noticed a growth on Castaneda's penis. The doctor ordered further testing, but these tests were never performed. Castaneda's condition continued to worsen and he experienced significant pain. The personal injury lawsuit alleges that government doctors and immigration officials continued to deny Castaneda medical treatment, a biopsy or surgery despite the recommendations of medical staff.

The Castaneda's lawsuit includes quotes from government records and indicates that doctors were aware of Castaneda's family history of cancer, and that his mother had died from the disease. The family used an injury lawyer to help file the claim. Despite all of the indications that Castaneda was suffering from cancer, officials ignored a cancer specialist's recommendation for a biopsy and said that a biopsy is an elective procedure.

As the cancer progressed, officials noted in Castaneda's medical records that he needed to "be patient and wait" for treatment. They did decide to be generous and order that Castaneda was to receive a clean pair of boxer shorts each day when he was experiencing discharges from his lesions.

By late January 2007, a doctor finally insisted that Castaneda undergo a biopsy and advised officials that he probably had penile cancer. At that point, immigration authorities released Castaneda so that they would not have to pay for the cancer treatment.

In issuing his ruling that the family can proceed with the lawsuit, Judge Pregerson said that if the allegations are true, the conduct of the medical staff at the immigration detention center was "beyond cruel and unusual."

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