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42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 itself creates no substantive rights; it merely provides a remedy for deprivations of federal rights established elsewhere. To sustain a cause of action based on § 1983, plaintiffs must establish two elements: (1) that they suffered a deprivation of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and (2) that the act or omission causing the deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of law. Section 1983 imposes liability only for violations of rights protected by the Constitution, not for violations of duties of care arising out of tort law. It does not provide a remedy for any and all injuries inflicted by persons acting under color of state law. Absent the existence of an underlying constitutional right, no § 1983 claim will lie.
Defendant county's emergency medical vehicles, in accord with its practice, transported plaintiff Toni Wideman, who was pregnant and in distress, to defendant hospital which guaranteed the payment of the county's medical bills, not the hospital where plaintiff’s physician awaited. Plaintiff gave birth to a premature child who died several hours after. Plaintiff and her husband filed an action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985 and 1988 seeking damages for the wrongful death of their child. Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that a conspiracy existed between defendants, whereby the county had a policy and practice of using its emergency medical vehicles to transport patients only to hospitals such as defendant hospital which guaranteed the payment of the County's emergency medical bills. Plaintiffs claimed that the conspiracy deprived them of their federal constitutional right to essential medical treatment and care. The defendants moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted. The plaintiffs challenged the decision.
Did the plaintiffs allege a violation of a right secured by the United States Constitution, thereby successfully making a claim under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983?
The Court noted that 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 created no substantive rights; it merely provided a remedy for deprivations of federal rights established elsewhere. To sustain a cause of action based on section 1983, plaintiffs must establish two elements: (1) that they suffered a deprivation of "rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws" of the United States, and (2) that the act or omission causing the deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of law. In this case, the Court held that plaintiffs failed to state a claim under § 1983 because defendants' actions did not violate any constitutional right. The Court found no general right, based upon either the Constitution or federal statutes, to the provision of medical treatment and services by a state or municipality. According to the Court, defendant county did not exercise a degree of coercion, dominion, or restraint over plaintiff sufficient to create a "special relationship" imposing a constitutional duty to provide her with the medical treatment she alleged was necessary. Remedy under traditional tort-law principles had to be sought in state court.