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Hill v. United States: On FTCA Personal Injury Lawsuits

Hill v. United States, a case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, involved a plaintiff who was serving a five-year sentence in prison when another inmate attacked him. He was hit with a metal object and lost vision in one eye. Eventually, the eye had to be removed by doctors. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the United States Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The lawsuit was filed pro se.

hospital-bed-2-65899-m.jpgAs your Boston personal injury lawyers know in rare cases a person will choose to represent himself or herself in court. When this happens, the unrepresented party is known as a pro se litigant.

In Hill, the basis for the lawsuit was that the BOP was negligent by allowing the prison to become overcrowded and by failing to safeguard the prisoners in the overcrowded environment.

During the pendency of his civil action, the plaintiff was released from prison into a halfway house. As a condition of his release, he was required to keep the prison informed of his whereabouts. He was forced to leave the halfway house soon after arriving and did not notify the court. His civil lawsuit was dismissed for want of prosecution. The dismissal was without prejudice, meaning that he could re-file the case. The problem was that the statute of limitations had run out on his time to re-file the case.

In claims filed under Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), the statue of limitations can be tolled upon a showing of good cause. Tolling a statute essentially means pausing the statute. This is a federal case, and the same statutory rule would apply had it been the federal court in Boston.

The appellate court ruled that the plaintiff should be given benefit of the doubt and allowed to re-file the case on good cause, due largely to the extreme nature of his personal injury. Losing an eye is a very serous injury that results in a great deal of pain and suffering. There is a significant amount of surgery needed to allow the eye socket to remain intact when an eye is removed. The optical nerves are a very complicated place on which to operate. In addition to the pain and suffering of the injury and initial eye surgery, the condition may require of lifetime of painful and expensive medical treatments to prevent further damage.

The court also allowed the plaintiff to overcome another procedural hurdle known as res judicata. This means that you only get one chance to file a claim that is dismissed with prejudice. There is a presumption that all claims dismissed for want of prosecution are dismissed with prejudice, unless the court indicates otherwise with a showing of good cause. The court failed to show good cause when it ordered the dismissal; however, the BOP had failed to object and could no longer raise the issue.

If you are injured in an accident in Massachusetts, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:

Hill v. United States, August 11, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
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