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Further Guidance on Significant Bodily Injury in Quintanilla v. U.S.

Jamison KoehlerCriminal Procedure, Legal Concepts/Principles, Opinions/Cases

The D.C. Court of Appeals took another step last week in defining what up until recently has been a poorly defined term:  the “significant bodily injury” that is required in order for the government to prove felony assault.

Although the appellant in Fidel Quintanilla v. United States, 62 A.3d 1261 (D.C. 2013), was convicted of multiple felony offenses, including robbery, the only question on appeal was his conviction for felony assault with significant bodily injury (D.C. Code §22-404(a)(2).

The complainant testified at trial that her head was “throbbing,” “sore,” and “very tender to the touch” after the robbery, with the throbbing lasting for a week and a half. She had swelling to her right eye and ear. Her hand was also injured, with some of her fingers remaining swollen for about three weeks. An injury to her index finger rendered the finger “almost unusable for about two months,” causing her “a lot of pain.”  The complainant also reported some bruising to her legs.

Medical personnel who responded to the scene gave her cold compresses for her head and hand but ruled out the possibility of a concussion. They did not offer her any medication. The complainant herself refused transportation to a hospital on the grounds that the did not have insurance:  She said she did not know how serious the injuries were but that she figured she could take care of herself and that “there was no need for the expense.”  The complainant never sought further treatment for her fingers. Nor, apart from some aspirin, did she take any medication for her injuries.

According to the court, the District’s felony assault statute was enacted to fill the gap between aggravated assault, which requires the government to prove “serious bodily injury,” and simple assault, which does not require any bodily injury at all.  According to the D.C. Council Committee Report that accompanied the felony assault statute, the purpose of the new offense was “to provide a penalty for assault that results in ‘significant (but not grave) bodily injury.’”

The D.C. Court of Appeals previously interpreted the term “significant bodily injury” in 2010 opinion, In re R.S., 6 A.3d 854 (D.C. 2010): “The threshold for significant bodily injury is markedly less severe than that required for aggravated assault.”  Bodily injury will be considered “significant” whenever “the nature of the injury itself” would lead to “the practical need in the ordinary course of events for prompt medical attention.”

To this, the court in Quintanilla added that it is not “determinative” whether or not the injured party immediately goes to a hospital or seeks other medical attention.  The question instead is whether or not the jury could have concluded that the complainant should have sought immediate medical attention to prevent “long-term physical damage” and “other potentially permanent injuries – or at least abating pain that is ‘severe’”:

Treatment is not “medical” . . . if applied to lesser, short-term hurts . . . [E]veryday remedies such as ice packs, bandages, and self-administered over-the-counter medications are not sufficiently “medical” to qualify under the statute, whether administered by a medical professional or with self-help.  Treatment of a higher order, requiring true “medical” expertise,” is required.