Washington Law Review


Plaintiff Kenneth Donaldson, a former state mental patient, brought an action for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 19831 in federal district court against five state hospital officials alleged to have intentionally and maliciously deprived him of his constitutional right to liberty. Despite repeated efforts to secure his release, the plaintiff was confined in a Florida state mental hospital for nearly fifteen years following his civil commitment in 1957 for care, maintenance, and treatment. Although the plaintiff was provided with routine custodial care during his hospital stay, he received no psychiatric treatment for his presumed mental illness. Contending that the defendants were aware of the institution's inadequate treatment program, plaintiff argued that his continued detention in the state facility without treatment violated his right to due process of law guaranteed by the fourteenth amendment. At trial, the jury assessed $28,500 compensatory and $10,000 punitive damages against Dr. J.B. O'Connor, the hospital superintendent, and a codefendant, plaintiff's attending physician. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, adopting the view that a person who is involuntarily civilly committed to a mental hospital has a constitutional right to receive such individual treatment as will give him a realistic opportunity to be cured or to improve his mental condition. On certiorari, the United States Supreme Court affirmed with respect to the violation of plaintiff's right to liberty in the absence of treatment, but remanded to the court of appeals for evaluation of the jury instructions concerning the qualified immunity from liability afforded to state officials. Held: A nondangerous individual who is capable of surviving safely in society by himself or with the aid of willing and responsible family members or friends cannot constitutionally be confined in a mental hospital that provides no treatment beyond mere custodial care. O'Connor v. Donaldson, 422 U.S. 563 (1975).

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