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Buechel v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

March 7, 2014

JOSEPH W. BUECHEL, Plaintiff-Appellant,

Argued November 13, 2013.

Page 754

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. No. 08-cv-132-JPG -- J. Phil Gilbert, Judge.

For JOSEPH W. BUECHEL, Plaintiff - Appellant: Nicole A. Allen, Attorney, Kevin McCall, Attorney, JENNER & BLOCK LLP, Chicago, IL.

For UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant - Appellee: Jennifer Hudson, Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Criminal Division, Fairview Heights, IL.

Before MANION, KANNE, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges.


Page 755

Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

In July 2006, plaintiff Joseph Buechel was incarcerated at FCI-Greenville, a federal correctional institution in Greenville, Illinois. Buechel contracted Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA, which is a type of staph infection resistant to certain antibiotics. Buechel's MRSA infection was so severe that it nearly killed him. He survived, but he had to be hospitalized for more than forty days and was left with serious and permanent damage to his heart and lungs. He brought suit against the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b), alleging that his MRSA infection and resulting injuries were caused by FCI-Greenville's negligence.

Though Buechel's administrative claim and complaint described his allegations of negligence in broader terms, the district court issued a pretrial order that limited Buechel's negligence claim to a theory that he contracted MRSA from contact with one fellow inmate, Joseph Hansen, in the prison laundry in mid-July 2006, or more generally as a result of sloppy procedures in handling infected laundry in the prison. Viewing Buechel's claim and the admissible evidence through this narrow lens, the court found after a bench trial that Buechel had not proved by a preponderance of the evidence that he had contracted MRSA from either Hansen or the laundry procedures.

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Accordingly, the district court entered judgment in favor of the government.

Buechel appeals. We find no error in the district court's finding that Buechel failed to prove that he contracted MRSA from Hansen and/or as a result of inadequate laundry procedures. However, the district court erred when it limited Buechel's negligence claim, without his consent, to just those two theories. Buechel's administrative claim and complaint presented a broader theory that FCI-Greenville was negligent more generally in its failure to adhere to its MRSA-containment policies in 2006, causing his MRSA infection. We affirm in part but vacate the judgment in favor of the government and remand for further proceedings on that broader theory.

I. Negligence Claims Presented at Trial

The district court found that Buechel failed to prove his MRSA infection was caused by negligence in either permitting Hansen to work with him in the prison laundry in mid-July 2006 or failing to use proper laundry procedures to prevent the spread of MRSA. We review these findings of fact only for clear error. Fed.R.Civ.P. 52(a)(6); Gaffney v. Riverboat Servs. of Ind., Inc., 451 F.3d 424, 447 (7th Cir. 2006) (The district court's findings of fact " are entitled to great deference and shall not be set aside unless they are clearly erroneous." ). Under this standard, we will not reverse unless, after reviewing all the evidence, we are left with " 'the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.'" Anderson v. City of Bessemer City, 470 U.S. 564, 573, 105 S.Ct. 1504, 84 L.Ed.2d 518 (1985), quoting United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395, 68 S.Ct. 525, 92 L.Ed. 746 (1948). As long as the district court's conclusions are " plausible in light of the record viewed in its entirety," we will not disturb them. Fyrnetics (Hong Kong) Ltd. v. Quantum Grp., Inc., 293 F.3d 1023, 1028 (7th Cir. 2002), quoting Anderson, 470 U.S. at 573-74. On the merits of Buechel's negligence theories that were within the scope of the court's pretrial order and were presented at trial, we affirm the district court.

When Buechel first arrived in FCI-Greenville in June 2006, he was healthy and had no symptoms of a MRSA or non-MRSA staph infection. In mid-July 2006, Buechel and Hansen worked together in the prison laundry to fix a washing machine and dryer as part of their prison maintenance jobs. Then, on July 20, 2006, Buechel was diagnosed with MRSA. Buechel testified that during their work assignment, Hansen had an open wound on his face that was oozing infected pus. Buechel's expert, Dr. Robert Greifinger, testified that " the most likely source" of Buechel's MRSA infection " was discharge from [the] persistent infection of Mr. Hansen" as they passed tools back and forth while working together in the prison laundry. Dr. Greifinger believed that the fact that Buechel and Hansen had hand-to-hand contact while Hansen had a draining wound and the timing of their respective diagnoses of infection were consistent with the conclusion that Buechel had become infected with MRSA as a result of working with Hansen. The district court rejected this theory. It found that Buechel was not credible, that Dr. Greifinger was not persuasive, and that the evidence did not show either that Hansen had MRSA in mid-July 2006 or that he had a seeping wound on his face during the work assignment with Buechel.

Hansen had tested positive for a non-MRSA staph infection in March 2006, again in May 2006, and again nearly a year later, in April 2007. In each of these

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laboratory tests, the staph bacteria infecting Hansen were found to be resistant to a different set of antibiotics. None of the lab tests showed Hansen to be MRSA-positive. Hansen's infections also had profiles of antibiotic resistance different from the profile of Buechel's MRSA infection. For example, Hansen's May 2006 infection was resistant to Bactrim, while Buechel's infection was susceptible to Bactrim. Dr. Greifinger conceded in his written report that there was no laboratory evidence that Buechel's infecting organism was the same as Hansen's infecting organism. He testified at trial that it was theoretically possible for Hansen's staph infection to have metamorphosed into MRSA between May and July 2006, and then to have metamorphosed back into non-MRSA staph by April 2007, but the district court understandably found this theoretical possibility to be speculative. The district court's findings that Hansen did not have MRSA in mid-July 2006 and that Buechel was not infected with the same organism as Hansen find reasonable support in the record and are not clearly erroneous.

The district court also rejected Buechel's assertion that Hansen had a seeping wound on his face when they worked together in the prison laundry that would have enabled transmission of an infection between them. The court explained why it did not find Buechel's testimony about Hansen's wound credible. " [I]n light of his demeanor while testifying, his interest in giving testimony favorable to himself, and his testimony's inconsistency with Hansen's medical records documenting no draining wounds and Hansen's daily supervisor's testimony that he never saw any drainage from Hansen's face, Buechel's testimony on this matter was incredible." Hansen's medical records reflect that on June 21 and 22, 2006, he had a wound on his forehead above his right eyebrow with " very scanty exudate," and prison staff restricted him from working during that time. Hansen and Buechel did not work together until a month later, in mid-July. The only contemporaneous medical record, dated July 18, 2006, states that Hansen had multiple lesions on his back, arm, and legs, but none on his face and none that were draining. In other words, Hansen's medical records do not support Buechel's testimony that Hansen had a draining wound on his face in mid-July 2006. Here, too, we have no grounds to disturb the district court's finding of fact based on conflicting evidence.

We also find no clear error in the district court's conclusion that the evidence did not prove that Buechel contracted MRSA from FCI-Greenville's laundry procedures. In 2006, the Bureau of Prisons and FCI-Greenville had MRSA Guidelines in place stating that MRSA-infected inmates whose wound drainage could not be contained with dressing should have their laundry " treat[ed] ... as potentially infectious" and " bagged" and washed at least every other day. Biohazard laundry was supposed to be washed separately from other inmate laundry. Buechel presented evidence that FCI-Greenville Health Services did not give biohazard laundry bags to inmates infected with either MRSA or non-MRSA staph. Additionally, Buechel testified that Health Services did not instruct infected inmates to wash their clothes separately and did not instruct MRSA-infected inmates on how to wash their clothes if they had draining wounds.

The district court, however, was not persuaded that Buechel contracted MRSA as a result of FCI-Greenville's laundry procedures. The court found that Buechel did not offer evidence that the prison's laundry temperature or laundry disinfecting procedures were inadequate to prevent the transmission of MRSA. Dkt. 161 at 7; see also Tr. 211 (Dr. Greifinger did not know if

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housing unit laundry machines heated water to a high enough temperature to kill MRSA bacteria, or if clothes were laundered with or without bleach). Without such evidence, the court found, there was nothing to tether FCI-Greenville's failure to provide biohazard bags and instructions on proper laundry procedures to Buechel's infection. The district court did not clearly err in rejecting this theory that Buechel contracted MRSA as a result of inadequate ...

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