Science & Technology Law

Posner: Lawyers bad at math are an increasing concern; inmate's blood-pressure suit shows why


An inmate’s “plainly meritless” suit over a three-week lapse in his blood pressure medication highlights the legal profession’s discomfort with science and technology issues, according to a federal appeals opinion by Judge Richard Posner.

The Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of the suit by Maurice Jackson in an Oct. 28 opinion that chastised the judges and the lawyers for failing to cite medical evidence supporting the inmate’s claimed symptoms.

“Innumerable are the lawyers who explain that they picked law over a technical field because they have a ‘math block,’ ” wrote Posner, who is known for his interest in law and economics. “But it’s increasingly concerning, because of the extraordinary rate of scientific and other technological advances that figure increasingly in litigation.”

The case was dismissed by a federal judge because neither defendant—neither the nurse practitioner nor the correctional counselor—was deliberately indifferent to the inmate’s plight. The nurse practitioner didn’t know the inmate wasn’t receiving his medication and the correctional counselor assumed the medical staff would deal with the medical issue.

But the case is troubling, Posner wrote, because the magistrate and the federal judge hearing the case assumed the inmate could present evidence leading to a reasonable inference that he suffered a serious medical condition as a result of the interruption in medication. And defense lawyers largely ignored the issue, he said.

“This lapse is worth noting,” Posner said, “because it is indicative of a widespread, and increasingly troublesome, discomfort among lawyers and judges confronted by a scientific or other technological issue.” He cites a concurrence by Justice Antonin Scalia in a ruling that human genes can’t be patented. Scalia wrote that he joined the court’s decision except for portions that are “going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief.”

The inmate didn’t receive his blood-pressure medication for three weeks. As a result, he alleged, he suffered loss of vision, nose bleeds, headaches and light-headedness when standing up. But the inmate’s blood pressure reading after the medication gap was only slightly above the normal range. It was 142/78 compared to the top of the normal range at 140/90. Unless the inmate had a serious medical condition unmentioned in the record, he would not have had those symptoms, Posner said. And one claimed effect—light-headedness—is actually a symptom of low blood pressure, Posner pointed out.

The inmate’s lawyer didn’t reference any medical literature in his briefs, yet he “builds an edifice of alarm” about the dire consequences, Posner wrote.

Posner said the inmate filed the case in September 2009. “The intervening years have been consumed largely by procedural wrangling and protracted, tedious depositions,” Posner wrote. “A stronger judicial hand on the tiller could have saved a good deal of time, effort and paper.”

A concurring opinion by Judge William Bauer said he would have ended the decision after noting that summary judgment was correct. “As Judge Posner points out,” Bauer said, “many lawyers decided against medical school because of lack of interest in the clinical aspects of medicine or a deeper interest in the less scientific aspects of law. I was one of those who chose law as opposed to medicine.”

Hat tip to How Appealing.

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