Chess v. Dovey

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Civil Rights § 1983
  • Date Filed: 06-25-2015
  • Case #: 12-16516
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Fletcher for the Court; Circuit Judge Watford and District Judge Duffy
  • Full Text Opinion

A faulty jury instruction is considered harmless when the non-appealing party is able to show that it is more probable than not that the jury would have reached the same verdict had the erroneous instruction not been given.

Michael Chess, a California state prisoner, brought a pro se claim against the the medical staff at California’s High desert state Prison (“medical staff”), claiming the staff did not provide him with constitutionally adequate medical care. Specifically, that the medical staff stopped providing Chess with methadone, giving him Tylenol, Naprosyn, niacin, and aspirin, which Chess alleges they knowingly gave to him even though it may be harmful to his liver. Chess was unsuccessful on both claims and now appeals the based on the faulty jury instruction given. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit the Ninth Circuit reviewed whether the instruction was a harmless error. The panel explained, when a pro se litigant fails to object to a jury instruction, the instruction receives ordinary standard of review. The instruction reads in pertinent part, “In determining whether the defendants violated the plaintiff’s rights as alleged, you should give deference to prison officials in the adoption and execution of policies and practices that in their judgment are needed to preserve discipline and to maintain internal security.” That jury instruction is only supposed to be given when the disputed medical treatment is a security-based policy. Since Chess’ treatment was not a security-based policy, the panel held that the instruction was given in error. However, the panel held that the error was harmless given that the medical staff showed that it was more probable than not that the jury would have reached the same verdict had the erroneous instruction not been given. AFFIRMED.

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