Thursday, October 11, 2012

Police beating nets $100,000 in punitive damages

Plaintiffs recover punitive damages when the defendant does something outrageous. They are available to plaintiffs in police misconduct cases. The plaintiff in this case got 'em, and the jury awarded him a lot of money. The Court of Appeals sharply reduces that amount. Along the way, the Second Circuit provides a brief dissertation on the perils of punitive damages.

The case is Payne v. Jones, decided on October 3. This set of facts tells us that world has gone mad and will continue to go mad. Payne is a Vietnam veteran who suffers from war-related post-traumatic stress disorder. His family brought him to the emergency room after he accidentally cut his thumb. Payne was disoriented and combative as he arrived in the ER, prompting officer Jones to arrest Payne under the Mental Hygiene Law, which authorizes the arrest of a person who appears to be mentally ill and might cause serious harm to himself or others. Jones took Payne to St. Elizabeth's Hospital, where things got ugly:

At St. Elizabeth, Payne resisted Jones’s efforts to move him from the ambulance gurney into an individual room in the emergency room’s mental health unit. Jones wrapped Payne in a bear hug and pushed him into the room. As Jones was placing Payne on the bed, he noticed Payne’s Marine Corps tattoos and said “Marines are pussies.” In response, Payne kicked Jones in the groin area. Jones reacted by punching Payne in the face and neck seven to ten times and kneeing him in the back several times. Payne, who was still handcuffed, defended himself by putting his hands up to cover his face and rolling on the bed to turn his back toward Jones. A nurse rushed forward and grabbed Jones, who then stopped punching Payne. The attack lasted 30 seconds or less. A doctor examined Payne and found that his face was bloody and swollen, and that his upper back was reddened. Payne later testified at trial that the beating aggravated his existing back pain and his post traumatic stress disorder. There was no evidence of any other injury.
 The jury ruled that Jones used excessive force against Payne and awarded Payne $60,000 in compensatory damages and $300,000 in punitives. The Court of Appeals (Leval, McLaughlin and Jacobs) knocks down the punitives to $100,000, still a lot of money, but not $300,000. Why the reduction? While Jones' conduct was "reprehensible" in that he gratuitously provoked Payne in insulting the Marine Corps and responding with violence when Payne kicked him, there are some mitigating factors. The Court says:

Jones’s violence was not unprovoked. Payne’s violent threats in the hospital had caused the officers to be summoned to control him. Payne struggled to resist the officers’ efforts to place him in handcuffs and on a gurney. Jones became violent only after Payne kicked him in the groin. While it is true that Payne’s kick in Jones’s groin was in response to Jones’s inappropriate verbal taunt, it was nonetheless a kick in the groin. While Jones’s violence was reprehensible, it was provoked, and that diminishes the degree of reprehensibility. His attack on Payne, furthermore, lasted at most 30 seconds, did not involve use of a weapon, and did not cause any serious physical injuries.
A kick in the groin is a kick in the groin, right? That really is the mother of all acts of violence. And it excuses Jones' reprehensible acts somewhat. The Court also reduces the award because "given the substantial amount of the compensatory award, the punitive award five times greater appears high." Also, Jones's attack on Payne was a misdemeanor offense, not a felony, so that Jones would only get up to a year in jail for this. Courts like to compare punitive damages to comparable criminal sanctions. Here, the potential sanction is not so high as to warrant a $300,000 punitive damages award. Finally, the punitive damages awards in other police brutality cases gave plaintiffs less money for more egregious conduct.

Along the way, the Second Circuit summarizes the objections that commentators and other courts have made to punitive damages. Not only may jurors award punitive damages "in any amount," but "judgment awarding unreasonable amounts as damages impose harmful, burdensome costs on society" as jurors in other cases may award similarly high awards. "Unchecked awards levied against significant industries can cause serious harm to the national economy." Meanwhile, "these burdens on society ... are not justified by the benefits to the plaintiffs. Because punitive damages are awarded over and above full compensatory damages to cover a plaintiff's actual losses, punitive damages have been characterized as 'a windfall to a fully compensated plaintiff.'" Accordingly, judges must be vigilant in ensuring that punitive damages do not get out of hand.

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