Hui v. Castaneda

  • May 3, 2010
    In a unanimous opinion, the high court said family members of a man who died not long after being in federal custody cannot sue the medical officials for negligent treatment.

    U.S. immigration officials detained Francisco Castaneda, an undocumented man from Salvador, in early 2006. During his imprisonment at the San Diego Corrections Facility (SDCF), Castaneda complained of a lesion on his penis. U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) personnel, however, refused to give Castaneda a biopsy to determine whether he had cancer, despite that some the medical personnel urged the overseeing physician, Esther Hui, to do so. Eventually Castaneda was released from confinement, but died of cancer in early 2008. Before his death, Castaneda had lodged a federal lawsuit against Hui and other PHS employees arguing that they acted with medical negligence. Castaneda's surviving family members joined the lawsuit after his death. The government urged dismissal of the lawsuit arguing that the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) provided absolute immunity federal medical personnel. Lower federal courts ruled in Castaneda's favor, refusing to dismiss the legal action.

    Writing for the Court in Hui v. Castaneda, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, concluded that the FTCA "grants absolute immunity to PHS officers and employees actions arising out of the performance of medical or related functions within the scope of their employment barring all actions against them for such conduct. By its terms, [the law] limits recovery for such conduct to suits against the United States."

    As The Associated Press reports, Castaneda's surviving family members could only sue the federal government under FTCA, which "bars jury trials and punitive damages and limits economic damages to those allowed under state law.

    The justices also declined to review a case involving a decision that barred the Boy Scouts from leasing public property in San Diego because of the group's religious background. In 2003 a federal judge ruled that San Diego officials violated the First Amendment by leasing the camp space at Balboa Park to the Boy Scouts, which the federal judge said is a religious group.

    The Supreme Court also announced today that visitors to the Court would no longer be able to use its main entrance, the two enormous bronze doors at the top of the high court's forty-some steps, due to security concerns. "The new entrance, which will serve as the primary means for public entry, was designed in light of findings and recommendations from two independent security studies conducted in 2001 and 2009," a press release from the Court states. "The entrance provides a secure reinforced area to screen for weapons, explosives, and chemical and biological hazards."

    The Court's statement said that on May 4, visitors would be able to enter the high court "from the plaza through ground-level doors located on each side of the front steps on the west side of the building. Visitors will not be able to enter the building through the front doors at the top of those steps, but they may exit the building through those doors."

    Justices Stephen Breyer issued a statement, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined, regarding the matter. Breyer said the closure was not justified.

    "I think the change is unfortunate, and I write in the hope that the public will one day in the future be able to enter the Court's Great Hall after passing under the famous words ‘Equal Justice Under Law.'"

    Breyer continued, "To my knowledge, and I have spoken to numerous jurists and architects worldwide, no other Supreme Court in the world - including those, such as Israel's, that face security concerns equal to or greater than ours - has closed its main entrance to the public."