Friday, November 6, 2009

Unusual jury verdict form costs plaintiff $12,000 in damages

When the judge gives the case over to the jury, the jury goes into a room with a verdict sheet to guide its deliberations. The verdict sheet contains questions that help the jury answer the questions relevant to the case. A good verdict form makes the process easy, sort of like a checklist. A bad verdict form, well ...

The case is Aczel v. Labonia, decided on October 9. This is a police beating case, and the jury awarded plaintiff about $12,000. But there were problems with the verdict form. The jury decided that the police officer did use excessive force and that plaintiff was entitled to damages. But the jury also found that the officer had qualified immunity from suit, which is a legal doctrine giving the police the benefit of the doubt in hard cases and relieves them of any liability. How can the jury find that the officer has qualified immunity but that he also has to pay the plaintiff $12,000 in damages for excessive force?

The trial court entered judgment for the officer on the basis that qualified immunity means no damages for plaintiff. Over a colorful dissent from Judge Pooler, the Court of Appeals (Leval and Parker) affirms the trial court. The bad verdict form produced two appeals to the Second Circuit. This opinion puts an end to the case. The plaintiff gets nothing, not even a new trial.

The majority says there is no inconsistency in what the jury did. "Those factual findings were (a) that Labonia used excessive force and (b) that Plaintiff suffered some damages caused by that use of excessive force, but that (c) Labonia reasonably believed his conduct was justified in the circumstances and was therefore entitled to qualified immunity." We can expect that excessive force will cause the plaintiff harm, but that reality is not inconsistent with the notion that the excessive force was justified under the circumstances. Qualified immunity trumps the excessive force finding. The damages award is a nullity, and the jury should not have tried to award them.

This case does provide some insight into how jurors think. After the jury came back with the inconsistent verdict, the judge told the jury to resume deliberating because qualified immunity means no damages. The jury then gave the judge a note stating it was trying to compromise among rigid positions and that it wanted plaintiff to at least recover his expenses and let the police officer off the hook. The judge told the jury it cannot do this; it's all or nothing. Then the jury gave the judge a note stating it wanted to reopen deliberations on the claims that it had already rejected. The jury left the inconsistent verdict sheet as it was and formally completed its deliberations. Apparently the jury liked the plaintiff ... but it liked the police officer also. This why the case went to the Second Circuit on two separate occasions.

The complicated nature of this case produced a lengthy dissent from Judge Pooler, who writes:

In this case, the jury’s initial verdict was an impermissible compromise between jurors who wanted to find that defendant-appellee Leonard Labonia was entitled to qualified immunity and jurors who wanted to award damages to plaintiff-appellant John Aczel. After the legal inconsistency was explained by the judge, the jury was invited to strike its damage award, if it indeed agreed that Labonia was entitled to qualified immunity. The jury could not reach agreement to do so. Nonetheless, the district court set aside the jury’s damages award. Never before have we permitted a district court to reconcile a jury’s inconsistent verdict, where the jury was asked to do so itself, but was unable to reach agreement. This result usurps the role of the jury and fails to accord proper deference to Aczel’s Seventh Amendment rights. I would vacate the district court’s judgment as to Aczel’s claims of excessive force and assault and battery against Labonia and remand for a new trial on those counts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good to know. Make those forms very clear for the layman