Colwell v. Banister

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Civil Rights § 1983
  • Date Filed: 08-14-2014
  • Case #: 12-15844
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Silverman for the Court; Circuit Judge Fletcher; Circuit Judge Bybee dissenting.
  • Full Text Opinion

To determine whether an inmate’s Eighth Amendment rights have been violated by the denial of medical surgery, the objective and subjective standards will be applied, whereby (1) under the objective standard, there must be a serious medical need, and (2) under the subjective standard, the corrections facility must be deliberately indifferent to an excessive risk to the health and safety of an inmate.

In 1991, John Colwell was imprisoned in the Nevada Department of Corrections (“NDOC”), serving a life without parole sentence. At the time of imprisonment, Colwell did not have eye concerns but later developed cataracts in both eyes, undergoing surgery to remove the cataract in the left eye in 2001. By 2002, the cataract in Colwell's right eye rendered him blind. The NDOC denied Colwell’s grievances to undergo additional surgery based on the “one good eye policy,” which states that cataract surgery is not necessary if an inmate has one functioning eye. Colwell brought suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that NDOC violated his Eighth Amendment rights by denying surgery to correct his vision. The district court granted summary judgment to the NDOC, finding that while Colwell’s blindness was a “serious medical need,” he did not demonstrate how the denial of surgery posed an “excessive risk” to his overall health. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court applied both the objective and subjective standards. Under the objective standard, the panel found that while blindness in one eye as a result of cataracts is not life threatening, it is, in fact, a serious medical need, causing Colwell physical injury on numerous occasions. Under the subjective standard, the panel found that NDOC showed deliberate indifference for Colwell’s condition, being both aware of the excessive risk to health and safety and denying Colwell cataract-removal surgery request based on administrative policy albeit the recommendations of treating specialists. REVERSED AND REMANDED.

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