In 2018, a case came out of the 8th Circuit involving a claim of excessive force and the awarding of over $600,000.00 in compensatory and punitive damages. There are 3 basic awards that may come out of a Section 1983 claim against police officers – compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. Typically, plaintiffs receive compensatory damages when they prevail on their claim. Basically, the purpose of a compensatory damage award is to make the plaintiff “whole” for the damage or loss they experienced.
Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a successful plaintiff may also seek his or her attorney’s fees. Simply put, the plaintiff’s attorney files a motion with the court, documenting the attorney’s time and expenses related to prosecuting the case. This includes any expert witness fees or other costs associated with the case and is one of the reasons why these cases can be quite expensive if a jury decides against the defendant officers.
On the other hand, “Punitive Damages” are awarded by the jury when there is a finding that the officers violated the plaintiff’s constitutional protections and the officers’ actions were so far outside the norm and so egregious that the jury imposes a fine, of sorts, to punish the officers for their actions.
One evening, the Plaintiff, Calvin Fletcher, was walking to a gas station in St. Louis, Missouri, when he observed a police car leaving the gas station’s parking lot. Fletcher was unarmed and carried not drugs or other contraband. SLPD Officers Tomlinson, Martorano, and Moton, were in the patrol car and as he continued walking, officers radioed that they were about to perform a “pedestrian check” on Fletcher. Officer Tomlinson claimed that Fletcher seemed to be “adjusting something in his waistband” and appeared startled by the patrol car.
Fletcher claimed he was startled and began backpedaling but fell down at which point the 3 officers jumped on him and began hitting him. Fletcher testified that officer Martorano struck him in the face several times with a “brick like” object and Officer Moton struck him with a “rod like” object across his legs and back.
However, the officers claimed in their report that Fletcher was acting suspiciously in the vacant lot so they performed the “pedestrian check” after retrieving some clothes and a small plastic bag with white powder from the lot. The officers claim Fletcher was combative and had to be restrained. They claim that he had to be dragged from the police cruiser once the prisoner transport van arrived. Unfortunately, the video camera in the rear of the transport van had been turned off when the van arrived on the scene. The officers also claimed that they were required to use the Taser on Fletcher due to his combative state.
EMTs were called to the scene but testified that the officers advised them Fletcher was refusing medical attention and the officers signed the waiver form. Fletcher was then transported to the booking facility where he was carried into the facility by officers who later testified Fletcher could not walk on his own.
Fletcher remained in the jail infirmary for 6 days. His injuries included bruising to his back, torso, legs and head. However, after a week his condition worsened and he was transported to the hospital. Hospital tests confirmed that Fletcher suffered a broken nose, fractured eye socket, internal brain injuries, and his kidneys were so badly damaged that he suffered renal failure. He remained in the hospital ICU for 2 weeks.
All of the charges against Fletcher were dismissed by the prosecutor’s office when the alleged packet of drugs tested negative for drugs and the clothes found in the vacant lot could not be connected to Fletcher. Fletcher then brought a Section 1983 claim and other various civil claims against the officers, the City of St Louis, the Perry County Sheriff’s Department who operated the jail facility, “Corizon” the company staffing the jail infirmary and Perry County Memorial Hospital.
Prior to trial, the County and Corizon settled for an undisclosed amount. Following trial, the jury found in favor of 2 officers and returned a verdict against defendant officers Martorano and Moton. The jury awarded compensatory damages of $100,000.00 against each of the officers and $200,000.00 in punitive damages against each officer. Officers Martorano and Moton appealed claiming that the evidence did not support an award for punitive damages.
8th Circuit Finding
On appeal, defendant Officer Moton claimed that Fletcher had not produced any evidence that Moton used excessive force, acted with “malice or racial bias” or caused any of Fletcher’s injuries. The appellate court noted that whether punitive damages are appropriate involves a two-part test:
- The plaintiff must show that the force used was objectively UNREASONABLE under the circumstances and, therefore, a violation of Fletcher’s 4th Amendment protections. In this case the appellate court determined that there was ample evidence that the force used by the officers was unreasonable. “The jury clearly believed the defendant’s version of events . . . Fletcher testified that he did not resist the officers or give them any reason to use force”. The officers’ reports and court room testimony documented that Fletcher was struck with a baton and Tasered.
- The treating physician testified that Fletcher’s kidney injuries were caused by a blow to the lower back and there was a rod- shaped bruise to the area, consistent with a baton strike.
Since the evidence clearly supported that the force used was excessive, the court moved to the question of punitive damages. As noted by the appellate court, “Punitive damages may be awarded under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 when the defendant’s conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others.”
Upholding the jury’s award, the court determined that there was sufficient evidence of malice, recklessness or callous indifference based on:
- The seriousness of the injuries;
- Fletcher’s testimony that he was beaten after he was handcuffed; and
- The treating physician’s testimony that the injuries were the result of the officers’ actions.
Certainly, there are times when, despite our best intentions, a plaintiff prevails on a Section 1983 claim and the jury awards compensatory damages. Typically, most officers are protected from civil litigation through indemnification statutes that require the political subdivision – city, county or state to indemnify officers and pay costs related to the defense of these claims and any compensatory damages awarded by the court.
However, punitive damages can be a different matter. Many of these statutes do not protect officers from actions that are found to be willful, wanton or malicious. It is important for you to know what indemnification protections you are entitled to in your jurisdiction and remember the one simple word that we repeat over and over again – REASONABLENESS. If you act reasonably and in accordance with your agency directives and state law, you can protect yourself from punitive damages.