Dudley Lee v. Minister for Correctional Services, [2012] ZACC 30

Constitutional Court decision allowing a prisoner to recover damages after contracting tuberculosis while in detention due to negligence by the Correctional Services authorities.

Date of the Ruling: 
Dec 11 2012
Constitutional Court
Type of Forum: 

Applicant, Dudley Lee, contracted tuberculosis (TB) while incarcerated in a detention facility under the supervision of the Minister for Correctional Services. Mr. Lee brought a case against the minister in the Western Cape High Court, Cape Town, which found the minister liable for damages suffered by Mr. Lee.

On appeal to the Constitutional Court, the main issue in this case was whether the failure of the Correctional Services authorities to take preventative and precautionary measures resulted in Mr. Lee’s infection with TB. Mr. Lee contended that the Correctional Services authorities knew that their conduct placed persons deprived of liberty at risk of TB infection, failed to prevent his exposure to others incarcerated who were actively infected, and failed to provide him with adequate medical treatment and medication once he was diagnosed with TB.

Under the common law, all persons have the right to the respect and protection of physical integrity. Under the Bill of Rights, persons have guarantees pertaining to human dignity, life, and security of person, and under section 35(2)(e) of the Constitution, persons deprived of liberty have the right to conditions of detention that include adequate accommodation, nutrition, and medical treatment.

The Constitutional Court found that the Correctional Services authorities had negligently breached their duty to maintain an adequate system for managing TB. The Court then examined the issue of causation, finding that if a proper process had been followed for isolating persons who were infected with TB, Mr. Lee would not have become infected. Following the spirit of the constitution, the Court held that the law should recognize a claim for damages to vindicate a violation of rights and that but-for causation tests should not be applied inflexibly.

Enforcement of the Decision and Outcomes: 

The Constitutional Court found in favor of the applicant and remitted the case to Western Cape High Court, Cape Town to assess damages.

Significance of the Case: 

The Constitutional Court held that rights of persons deprived of liberty to dignity and medical care include state duties to implement policies to prevent the spread of and control of known health risks. The Court also held that in such claims, the but-for causation test should be flexible.

For their contributions, special thanks to ESCR-Net members: the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University.