Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976)

Author: Justice Marshall

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Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976)

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondent J. W. Gamble, an inmate of the Texas Department of Corrections, was injured on November 9, 1973, while performing a prison work assignment. On February 11, 1974, he instituted this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983,{1} complaining of the treatment he received after the injury. Named as defendants were the petitioners, W. J. Estelle, Jr., Director of the Department of Corrections, H. H. Husbands, warden of the prison, and Dr. Ralph Gray, medical director of the Department and chief medical officer of the prison hospital. The District Court, sua sponte, dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.{2} The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with instructions to reinstate the complaint. 516 F.2d 937 (CA5 1975). We granted certiorari, 424 U.S. 907 (1976).


Because the complaint was dismissed for failure to state a claim, we must take as true its handwritten pro se allegations. Cooper v. Pate, 378 U.S. 546 (1964). According to the complaint, Gamble was injured on November 9, 1973, when a bale of cotton{3} fell on him while he was unloading a truck. He continued to work, but ,after four hours, he became stiff and was granted a pass to the unit hospital. At the hospital, a medical assistant, "Captain" Blunt, checked him for a hernia and sent him back to his cell. Within two hours, the pain became so intense that Gamble returned to the hospital, where he was given pain pills by an inmate nurse and then was examined by a doctor. The following day, Gamble saw a Dr. Astone, who diagnosed the injury as a lower back strain, prescribed Zactirin (a pain reliever) and Robaxin (a muscle relaxant),{4} and placed respondent on "cell pass, cell feed" status for two days, allowing him to remain in his cell at all times except for showers. On November 12, Gamble again saw Dr. Astone, who continued the medication and cell pass, cell feed for another seven days. He also ordered that respondent be moved from an upper to a lower bunk for one week, but the prison authorities did not comply with that directive. The following week, Gamble returned to Dr. Astone. The doctor continued the muscle relaxant but prescribed a new pain reliever, Febridyne, and placed respondent on cell-pass for seven days, permitting him to remain in his cell except for meals and showers. On November 26, respondent again saw Dr. Astone, who put respondent back on the original pain reliever for five days and continued the cell-pass for another week.

On December 3, despite Gamble’s statement that his back hurt as much as it had the first day, Dr. Astone took him off cell-pass, thereby certifying him to be capable of light work. At the same time, Dr. Astone prescribed Febridyne for seven days. Gamble then went to a Major Muddox and told him that he was in too much pain to work. Muddox had respondent moved to "administrative segregation."{5} On December 5, Gamble was taken before the prison disciplinary committee, apparently because of his refusal to work. When the committee heard his complaint of back pain and high blood pressure, it directed that he be seen by another doctor.

On December 6, respondent saw petitioner Gray, who performed a urinalysis, blood test, and blood pressure measurement. Dr. Gray prescribed the drug Ser-Ap-Es for the high blood pressure and more Febridyne for the back pain. The following week respondent again saw Dr. Gray, who continued the Ser-Ap-Es for an additional 30 days. The prescription was not filled for four days, however, because the staff lost it. Respondent went to the unit hospital twice more in December; both times he was seen by Captain Blunt, who prescribed Tiognolos (described as a muscle relaxant). For all of December, respondent remained in administrative segregation.

In early January, Gamble was told on two occasions that he would be sent to the "farm" if he did not return to work. He refused, nonetheless, claiming to be in too much pain. On January 7, 1974, he requested to go on sick call for his back pain and migraine headaches. After an initial refusal, he saw Captain Blunt, who prescribed sodium salicylate (a pain reliever) for several days and Ser-Ap-Es for 30 days. Respondent returned to Captain Blunt on January 17 and January 25, and received renewals of the pain reliever prescription both times. Throughout the month, respondent was kept in administrative segregation.

On January 31, Gamble was brought before the prison disciplinary committee for his refusal to work in early January. He told the committee that he could not work because of his severe back pain and his high blood pressure. Captain Blunt testified that Gamble was in "first class" medical condition. The committee, with no further medical examination or testimony, placed respondent in solitary confinement.

Four days later, on February 4, at 8 am., respondent asked to see a doctor for chest pains and "blank outs." It was not until 7:30 that night that a medical assistant examined him and ordered him hospitalized. The following day, a Dr. Heaton performed an electrocardiogram; one day later, respondent was placed on Quinidine for treatment of irregular cardiac rhythm and moved to administrative segregation. On February 7, respondent again experienced pain in his chest, left arm, and back and asked to see a doctor. The guards refused. He asked again the next day. The guards again refused. Finally, on February 9, he was allowed to see Dr. Heaton, who ordered the Quinidine continued for three more days. On February 11, he swore out his complaint.


The gravamen of respondent’s § 1983 complaint is that petitioners have subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth.{6} See Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962). We therefore base our evaluation of respondent’s complaint on those Amendments and our decisions interpreting them.

The history of the constitutional prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments" has been recounted at length in prior opinions of the Court, and need not be repeated here. See, e.g., Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 169-173 (1976) (joint opinion of STEWART, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ. (hereinafter joint opinion)); see also Granucci, Nor Cruel and Unusual Punishment Inflicted: The Original Meaning, 57 Calif.L.Rev. 839 (1969). It suffices to note that the primary concern of the drafters was to proscribe "torture[s]" and other "barbar[ous]" methods of punishment. Id. at 842. Accordingly, this Court first applied the Eighth Amendment by comparing challenged methods of execution to concededly inhuman techniques of punishment. See Wilkerson v. Utah, 99 U.S. 130, 136 (1879) ("[I]t is safe to affirm that punishments of torture . . . and all others in the same line of unnecessary cruelty, are forbidden by that amendment . . ."); In re Kemmler, 136 U.S. 436, 447 (1890) ("Punishments are cruel when they involve torture or a lingering death. . . .").

Our more recent cases, however, have held that the Amendment proscribes more than physically barbarous punishments. See, e.g., Gregg v. Georgia, supra at 171 (joint opinion); Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100-101 (1958); Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 373 (1910). The Amendment embodies "broad and idealistic concepts of dignity, civilized standards, humanity, and decency . . . ," Jackson v. Bishop, 404 F.2d 571, 579 (CA8 1968), against which we must evaluate penal measures. Thus, we have held repugnant to the Eighth Amendment punishments which are incompatible with "the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society," Trop v. Dulles, supra at 101; see also Gregg v. Georgia, supra at 172-173 (joint opinion); Weems v. United States, supra at 378, or which "involve the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain," Gregg v. Georgia, supra at 173 (joint opinion); see also Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459, 463 (1947); Wilkerson v. Utah, supra at 136.{7}

These elementary principles establish the government’s obligation to provide medical care for those whom it is punishing by incarceration. An inmate must rely on prison authorities to treat his medical needs; if the authorities fail to do so, those needs will not be met. In the worst cases, such a failure may actually produce physical "torture or a lingering death," In re Kemmler, supra, the evils of most immediate concern to the drafters of the Amendment. In less serious cases, denial of medical care may result in pain and suffering which no one suggests would serve any penological purpose. Cf. Gregg v. Georgia, supra, at 182-183 (joint opinion). The infliction of such unnecessary suffering is inconsistent with contemporary standards of decency as manifested in modern legislation{8}codifying the common law view that "it is but just that the public be required to care for the prisoner, who cannot, by reason of the deprivation of his liberty, care for himself."{9}

We therefore conclude that deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the "unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain," Gregg v. Georgia, supra, at 173 (joint opinion), proscribed by the Eighth Amendment. This is true whether the indifference is manifested by prison doctors in their response to the prisoner’s needs{10} or by prison guards in intentionally denying or delaying access to medical care{11} or intentionally interfering with the treatment once prescribed.{12} Regardless of how evidenced, deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s serious illness or injury states a cause of action under § 1983.

This conclusion does not mean, however, that every claim by a prisoner that he has not received adequate medical treatment states a violation of the Eighth Amendment. An accident, although it may produce added anguish, is not on that basis alone to be characterized as wanton infliction of unnecessary pain. In Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459 (1947), for example, the Court concluded that it was not unconstitutional to force a prisoner to undergo a second effort to electrocute him after a mechanical malfunction had thwarted the first attempt. Writing for the plurality, Mr. Justice Reed reasoned that the second execution would not violate the Eighth Amendment because the first attempt was an "unforeseeable accident." Id. at 464. Mr. Justice Frankfurter’s concurrence, based solely on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, concluded that, since the first attempt had failed because of "an innocent misadventure," id. at 470, the second would not be "`repugnant to the conscience of mankind,’" id. at 471, quoting Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 323 (1937).{13}

Similarly, in the medical context, an inadvertent failure to provide adequate medical care cannot be said to constitute "an unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain" or to be "repugnant to the conscience of mankind." Thus, a complaint that a physician has been negligent in diagnosing or treating a medical condition does not state a valid claim of medical mistreatment under the Eighth Amendment. Medical malpractice does not become a constitutional violation merely because the victim is a prisoner. In order to state a cognizable claim, a prisoner must allege acts or omissions sufficiently harmful to evidence deliberate indifference to serious medical needs. It is only such indifference that can offend "evolving standards of decency" in violation of the Eighth Amendment.{14}


Against this backdrop, we now consider whether respondent’s complaint states a cognizable § 1983 claim. The handwritten pro se document is be liberally construed. As the Court unanimously held in Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972), a pro se complaint, "however inartfully pleaded," must be held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers" and can only be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it appears "`beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.’" Id. at 520-521, quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957).

Even applying these liberal standards, however, Gamble’s claims against Dr. Gray, both in his capacity as treating physician and as medical director of the Corrections Department, are not cognizable under § 1983. Gamble was seen by medical personnel on 17 occasions spanning a three-month period: by Dr. Astone five times; by Dr. Gray twice; by Dr. Heaton three times; by an unidentified doctor and inmate nurse on the day of the injury; and by medical assistant Blunt six times. They treated his back injury, high blood pressure, and heart problems. Gamble has disclaimed any objection to the treatment provided for his high blood pressure and his heart problem; his complaint is "based solely on the lack of diagnosis and inadequate treatment of his back injury." Response to Pet. for Cert. 4; see also Brief for Respondent 19. The doctors diagnosed his injury as a lower back strain and treated it with bed rest, muscle relaxants, and pain relievers. Respondent contends that more should have been done by way of diagnosis and treatment, and suggests a number of options that were not pursued. Id. at 17, 19. The Court of Appeals agreed, stating:

Certainly an X-ray of [Gamble’s] lower back might have been in order and other tests conducted that would have led to appropriate diagnosis and treatment for the daily pain and suffering he was experiencing.

516 F.2d at 941. But the question whether an X-ray -- or additional diagnostic techniques or forms of treatment -- is indicated is a classic example of a matter for medical judgment. A medical decision not to order an X-ray, or like measures, does not represent cruel and unusual punishment. At most, it is medical malpractice, and, as such, the proper forum is the state court under the Texas Tort Claims Act.{15} The Court of Appeals was in error in holding that the alleged insufficiency of the medical treatment required reversal and remand. That portion of the judgment of the District Court should have been affirmed.{16}

The Court of Appeals focused primarily on the alleged actions of the doctors, and did not separately consider whether the allegations against the Director of the Department of Corrections, Estelle, and the warden of the prison, Husbands, stated a cause of action. Although we reverse the judgment as to the medical director, we remand the case to the Court of Appeals to allow it an opportunity to consider, in conformity with this opinion, whether a cause of action has been stated against the other prison officials.

It is so ordered.

MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN concurs in the judgment of the Court.

1. Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities, secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

2. It appears that the petitioner-defendants were not even aware of the suit until it reached the Court of Appeals. Tr. of Oral Arg. 7, 13-15. This probably resulted because the District Court dismissed the complaint simultaneously with granting leave to file it in forma pauperis.

3. His complaint states that the bale weighed "6.00 pound." The Court of Appeals interpreted this to mean 600 pounds. 516 F.2d 937, 938 (CA5 1975).

4. The names and descriptions of the drugs administered to respondent are taken from his complaint. App. A-5 - A-1l, and his brief, at 19-20.

5. There are a number of terms in the complaint whose meaning is unclear and, with no answer from the State, must remain so. For example, "administrative segregation" is never defined. The Court of Appeals deemed it the equivalent of solitary confinement. 516 F.2d at 939. We note, however, that Gamble stated he was in "administrative segregation" when he was in the "32A-7 five building" and "32A20 five building," but when he was in "solitary confinement," he was in "3102 five building."

6. The Eighth Amendment provides:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

At oral argument, counsel for respondent agreed that his only claim was based on the Eighth Amendment. Tr. of Oral Arg. 42-43.

7. The Amendment also proscribes punishments grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime, Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 173 (1976) (joint opinion); Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 367 (1910), and it imposes substantive limits on what can be made criminal and punished, Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962). Neither of these principles is involved here.

8. See, e.g., Ala.Code Tit. 45, § 125 (1958); Alaska Stat. § 33.30.050 (1975); Ariz.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 31-201.01 (Supp. 1975); Conn.Gen.Stat.Ann. § 18-7 (1975); Ga.Code Ann. § 77-309(e) (1973); Idaho Code § 20-209 (Supp. 1976); Ill.Ann.Stat. c. 38, § 103-2 (1970); Ind. Ann.Stat. § 11-1-1.1-30.5 (1973); Kan.Stat.Ann. § 75-5429 (Supp. 1975); Md.Ann.Code Art. 27 § 698 (1976); Mass.Ann.Laws, c. 127, § 90A (1974); Mich.Stat.Ann. § 14.84 (1969); Miss.Code Ann. § 47-1-57 (1972); Mo.Ann.Stat. § 221.120 (1962); Neb.Rev.Stat. § 83-181 (1971); N.H.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 619.9 (1974); N.M.Stat.Ann. § 42-2-4 (1972); Tenn.Code Ann. §§ 41-318, 41-1115, 41-1226 (1975); Utah Code Ann. §§ 64-9-13, 64-9-19, 64-9-20, 64-9-53 (1968); Va.Code Ann. §§ 32-81, 32-82 (1973); W.Va.Code Ann. § 25-1-16 (Supp. 1976); Wyo.Stat.Ann. § 18-299 (1959).

Many States have also adopted regulations which specify, in varying degrees of detail, the standards of medical care to be provided to prisoners. See Comment, The Rights of Prisoners to Medical Care and the Implications for Drug-Dependent Prisoners and Pretrial Detainees, 42 U.Chi.L.Rev. 705, 708-709 (1975).

Model correctional legislation and proposed minimum standards are all in accord. See American Law Institute, Model Penal Code §§ 303.4, 304.5 (1962); National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, Standards on Rights of Offenders, Standard 2.6 (1973); National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Model Act for the Protection of Rights of Prisoners, § 1(b) (1972); National Sheriffs’ Association, Standards for Inmates’ Legal Rights, Right No. 3 (1974); Fourth United Nations Congress on Prevention of Crime and Treatment of Offenders, Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, Rules 22-26 (1955). The foregoing may all be found in U.S. Dept. of Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, Compendium of Model Correctional Legislation and Standards (2d ed. 1975).

9. Spicer v. Williamson, 191 N.C. 487, 490, 132 S.E. 291, 293 (1926).

10. See, e.g., Williams v. Vincent, 508 F.2d 541 (CA2 1974) (doctor’s choosing the "easier and less efficacious treatment" of throwing away the prisoner’s ear and stitching the stump may be attributable to "deliberate indifference . . . , rather than an exercise of professional judgment"); Thomas v. Pate, 493 F.2d 151, 158 (CA7), cert. denied sub nom. Thomas v. Cannon, 419 U.S. 879 (1974) (injection of penicillin with knowledge that prisoner was allergic, and refusal of doctor to treat allergic reaction); Jones v. Lockhart, 484 F.2d 1192 (CA8 1973) (refusal of paramedic to provide treatment); Martinez v. Mancusi, 443 F.2d 921 (CA2 1970), cert. denied, 401 U.S. 983 (1971) (prison physician refuses to administer the prescribed pain killer and renders leg surgery unsuccessful by requiring prisoner to stand despite contrary instructions of surgeon).

11. See, e.g., Westlake v. Lucas, 537 F.2d 857 (CA6 1976); Thomas v. Pate, supra at 158-159; Fitzke v. Shappell, 468 F.2d 1072 (CA6 1972); Hutchens v. Alabama, 466 F.2d 507 (CA5 1972); Riley v. Rhay, 407 F.2d 496 (CA9 1969); Edwards v. Duncan, 355 F.2d 993 (CA4 1966); Hughes v. Noble, 295 F.2d 495 (CA5 1961).

12. See, e.g., Wilbron v. Hutto, 509 F.2d 621, 622 (CA8 1975); Campbell v. Beto, 460 F.2d 765 (CA5 1972); Martinez v. Mancusi, supra; Tolbert v. Eyman, 434 F.2d 625 (CA9 1970); Edwards v. Duncan, supra.

13. He noted, however, that "a series of abortive attempts" or "a single, cruelly willful attempt" would present a different case. 329 U.S. at 471.

14. The Courts of Appeals are in essential agreement with this standard. All agree that mere allegations of malpractice do not state a claim, and, while their terminology regarding what is sufficient varies, their results are not inconsistent with the standard of deliberate indifference. See Page v. Sharpe, 487 F.2d 567, 569 (CA1 1973); Williams v. Vincent, supra at 544 (uses the phrase "deliberate indifference"); Gittlemacker v. Prasse, 428 F.2d 1, 6 (CA3 1970); Russell v. Sheffer, 528 F.2d 318 (CA4 1975); Newman v. Alabama, 503 F.2d 1320, 1330 n. 14 (CA5 1974), cert. denied, 421 U.S. 948 (1975) ("callous indifference"); Westlake v. Lucas, supra at 860 ("deliberate indifference"); Thomas v. Pate, supra at 158; Wilbron v. Hutto, supra at 622 ("deliberate indifference"); Tolbert v. Eyman, supra at 626; Dewell v.Lawson, 489 F.2d 877, 881-882 (CA10 1974).

15. Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat., Art. 6252-19, § 3 (Supp. 1976). Petitioners assured the Court at argument that this statute can be used by prisoners to assert malpractice claims. Tr. of Oral Arg. 6.

16. Contrary to MR. JUSTICE STEVENS’ assertion in dissent, this case signals no retreat from Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972). In contrast to the general allegations in Haines, Gamble’s complaint provides a detailed factual accounting of the treatment he received. By his exhaustive description, he renders speculation unnecessary. It is apparent from his complaint that he received extensive medical care and that the doctors were not indifferent to his needs.


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Chicago: Marshall, "Marshall, J., Lead Opinion," Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976) in 429 U.S. 97 429 U.S. 99–429 U.S. 108. Original Sources, accessed January 27, 2023,

MLA: Marshall. "Marshall, J., Lead Opinion." Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), in 429 U.S. 97, pp. 429 U.S. 99–429 U.S. 108. Original Sources. 27 Jan. 2023.

Harvard: Marshall, 'Marshall, J., Lead Opinion' in Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976). cited in 1976, 429 U.S. 97, pp.429 U.S. 99–429 U.S. 108. Original Sources, retrieved 27 January 2023, from