In a 3-0 ruling, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said that Francisco Castaneda's daughter and the administrator of his estate could seek damages against the government doctors and officials who supervised his treatment at immigration detention centers in San Diego and Los Angeles.
Castaneda, 36, from El Salvador died in February at his Los Angeles-area home a year after doctors amputated his penis to try to stop the spread of the cancer that had developed while he was in custody. He testified in October 2007 to a congressional committee looking into complaints of shoddy care and preventable deaths at centers that hold tens of thousands of immigrants during deportation proceedings.
The ruling Thursday sets no limit on the damages a jury could award if it found that a government employee had been deliberately indifferent to Castaneda's health. Defense lawyers argued that federal law allows a suit only against the government, with a $250,000 damage limit. The government has admitted negligence in Castaneda's death, but individual defendants have denied wrongdoing.
Conal Doyle, a lawyer for the family, called the ruling "an unprecedented victory for the Castaneda family as well as all immigrant detainees." He said he and his colleagues would "relentlessly pursue this case until every government official is held accountable for the atrocities inflicted upon this helpless detainee."
John Rubiner, lawyer for one of the U.S. Public Health Service officials sued by the family, said his client was disappointed and was examining his options, which could include an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Castaneda entered the United States with his mother at age 10 after fleeing El Salvador during a civil war. He was convicted in 2005 of possessing methamphetamine and spent eight months in jail, then was held in detention centers while awaiting proceedings in the government's attempt to deport him and in his request for political asylum.
According to his lawsuit, a doctor first noticed a growth on his penis in 2005, while he was in state custody. While the lesions multiplied and his pain increased, doctors and immigration agency officials rejected staff recommendations for a biopsy, describing it as an elective procedure, the suit said.
A doctor finally ordered a biopsy in January 2007 and said Castaneda probably had cancer, but the immigration agency released him without treatment 11 days later, the suit said. He underwent amputation in a Los Angeles hospital.
A month after his death in February, a federal judge in Los Angeles described government officials' alleged conduct as callous and refused to dismiss the family's claims that Castaneda's right to due process of law had been violated. That cleared the way for a jury trial with possible punitive damages.
In upholding his ruling Thursday, the appeals court said Castaneda had been subjected to a "Kafkaesque nightmare" - if the claims in the family's suit were true - and that Congress had not intended to allow federal employees "to violate the Constitution without consequence."