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What is Deliberate Indifference?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 16, 2024
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Deliberate indifference is a provision in law that permits someone to sue a public official who acts with conscious disregard of his or her health or safety. The conduct must be more than negligence, and done with knowledge that a risk exists while ignoring the potential consequences. Proving deliberate indifference in court is difficult because a plaintiff must be able to prove that a public officer knew harm would occur from his or her actions.

In many countries, public officers and their employees are granted immunity from civil lawsuits if someone is injured while the officer or employee is carrying out official duties. Immunity may also apply to federal and state governments, and is a provision in international law. The immunity extends to public employees as long as they do not intentionally violate a person’s civil rights while performing their jobs. Some exceptions to immunity exist in different regions for certain acts.

Lawsuits citing deliberate indifference have been filed by prison inmates who claim they were denied swift medical treatment for injuries or illness. Prisoners have also alleged that punishment meted out by guards put them at risk for serious harm to their health or safety. Judges and juries must weigh the evidence to determine if the defendant acted with reckless disregard and intentionally put the prisoner at risk.

Cases have also been filed against cities and counties when a police officer maims or kills a citizen. In some of these cases, it may be alleged that inadequate training led to the officer acting wantonly and causing harm. Courts have ruled that county and city officials are not liable for the officer’s acts unless they knew that training programs were inadequate and failed to correct the problem. For example, if public officials have been informed that a pattern exists that might cause injury, and they do nothing to eliminate the risk, they could be guilty of deliberate indifference.

Similar cases citing deliberate indifference have been filed against school districts claiming school officials failed to provide adequate services to students. In one case, parents alleged the school district was ordered by a court to provide certain services to a child with learning disabilities but failed to do so. The court ruled in favor of the school district because it could not be shown that school officials knew harm would result.

Essentially, to prove deliberate indifference, it has to be proved that a public official knew risks existed, ignored the risk, and committed acts that went beyond negligence. The law is complex and relies on subjective interpretation of intent. Judges or juries deciding these cases attempt to evaluate the mental state of the defendant at the time the conduct occurred.

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