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Media Alerts - Bucklew v. Lombardi - Eighth Circuit
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April 10, 2015
  Bucklew v. Lombardi - Eighth Circuit
Headline Eighth Circuit reverses dismissal of prisoner lawsuit challenging the lethal-injection protocol of the Missouri Department of Corrections as applied to him in light of his pre-existing medical condition

Area of Law Eighth Amendment

Issue(s) Presented Whether the district court properly dismissed sua sponte a § 1983 action alleging that Missouri's lethal-injection method of execution would violate the prisoner's Eighth Amendment rights due to a serious medical condition that increased the likelihood of the execution method causing extreme pain.

Brief Summary This is a companion opinion to that issued on March 6, 2015 in Zink v. Lombardi, the full text of which can be found at In addition to being a plaintiff in that action, which challenged Missoui's lethal-injection protocol on a number of grounds, Bucklew filed this separate action under 42 USC § 1983. He alleged that the protocol violates his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment because he suffers from a serious medical condition that creates a significant risk that the execution will cause him excruciating pain. The district court dismissed plaintiff's claim sua sponte before an answer was filed, finding that plaintiff had not adequately alleged facts to support the elements of an Eighth Amendment challenge to Missouri's method of execution.

On appeal, Bucklew raised several issues that were duplicative of the arguments made on appeal in Zink v. Lombardi. The Eighth Circuit resolved those issues in its opinion in Zink. Bucklew also argued that he adequately alleged that Missouri's lethal-injection protocol, as applied to him, would violate the Eighth Amendment standard because of his unique medical condition. There are two essential elements of an Eighth Amendment claim challenging a state's method of execution. First, the complaint must adequately allege that the protocol creates a substantial risk of severe pain. Second, the complaint must allege that a feasible alternative method of execution exists that would substantially reduce the risk of harm.

In addressing the as-applied argument, the Eighth Circuit examined the allegations of Bucklew's complaint and the affidavits of medical experts attached thereto concerning his medical condition, congenital cavernous hemangioma. Among other things, the facts and opinions alleged that, due to this condition, possible hemorrhaging or abnormal circulation of the lethal drug created a substantial risk that the execution would be prolonged, extremely painful, and might result in suffocation. The complaint did not specifically allege a feasible alternative method of execution that would substantially reduce these risks. Though an answer was not filed, in its papers opposing Bucklew's motions for preliminary injunction and a stay of execution, the Missouri Department of Corrections acknowledged Bucklew's medical condition, and determined that it would change its lethal-injection procedure to lessen the alleged risk. The Eighth Circuit found that this concession bolstered the detailed allegations of the complaint alleging substantial risk of serious harm, and also supported Bucklew's allegations that Missouri had unreasonably refused to change its regular method of execution to a "feasible, readily implemented" alternative that would significantly reduce the substantial risks alleged.

The Eighth Circuit noted that a district court only has the power to dismiss a claim sua sponte where the plaintiff cannot possibly prevail and amendment of the claim would be futile. After reviewing the complaint and the record, the Eighth Circuit held that the district court prematurely exercised this limited authority because it was not "patently obvious the plaintiff could not prevail." The Eighth Circuit further noted that the district court should not have assumed that Bucklew would have declined an invitation to amend the complaint to include more detailed allegations of a feasible alternative method of execution.

The full text of the opinion may be found at

Panel En Banc

Date of Issued Opinion March 6, 2015

Decided Reversed and remanded

Docket Number 14-2163

Counsel Cheryl Ann Pilate for Appellant and James B. Farnsworth for Appellees

Author Circuit Judge Loken

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor Joelle Larson, University of Minnesota Law School

    Posted By: Joelle Larson @ 04/10/2015 03:37 PM     8th Circuit  

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