Tuesday, August 26, 2014

$250,000 in damages for malicious prosecution victim

In this malicious prosecution case, an LIRR employee won her case against a co-worker who had falsely accused her of grabbing her breast. The jury awarded plaintiff $480,000 in damages. The Second Circuit sustains the liability finding but reduces the damages to $250.000.

The case is Stamf v. Trigg, decided on July 30. Trigg says Stamf "reached her hand into my car window and grabbed my left breast and shook it." Trigg reported this incident, causing plaintiff's arrest. She was given a Desk Appearance Ticket (DAT) and sat in a jail cell for four hours. She also paid a lawyer $25,000 to get the charges dismissed. In the end, the DA decided not to proceed against Stampf.

This case raises a series of issues: whether Stampf actually had a case against Trigg and whether the jury awarded plaintiff too much money. The answers are Yes and Yes.

First, liability. To win a malicious prosecution case, you have to show that false charges were initiated against you. The issue here is whether the DAT qualifies as something that initiates a case against plaintiff. Remember, the DA did not bring formal charges. The courts are not clear on this issue. In 1979, the Second Circuit said that a DAT initiates the process for purposes of a malicious prosecution case. But state courts over the years have reached different holdings on this issue. After deep thought (it took nearly two years for the Court of Appeals to issue this ruling), the Second Circuit (Leval Katzmann and Livingston) reaffirms that a DAT is enough to predicate a malicious prosecution claim.

The proceeding also terminated in plaintiff's favor. Defendant argues that the prosecution had the option of filing charges against Stampf at a later point, which means that her innocence is in doubt, which would prevent her from suing for malicious prosecution. The Second Circuit will not go that far, reasoning:

If the law were as Trigg argues, it would mean that malicious prosecution claims often could not be brought in the cases where the accusations had the least substance. The cases that most lack substance are most likely to be abandoned by the prosecution without pursuing them to judgment. On Trigg’s view, the most unjustified accusations might thus be the most likely to be shielded from malicious prosecution claims. We believe that, under New York law, a declination as received by Stampf suffices to establish termination in the plaintiff’s favor notwithstanding that the prosecutor is theoretically capable of resurrecting the prosecution.
The Court of Appeals does reduce the damages award. The jury gave Stampf the following: $200,000 for past pain and suffering, $100,000 for future pain and suffering and $150,000 in punitive damages. Jurors don't know that their damages awards are like advisory verdicts, and that the courts carefully evaluate them post-trial and on appeal to ensure they are not too high. Reviewing awards in similar cases and looking at the harm that plaintiff actually suffered as a result of the false prosecution initiated by Trigg, the Court of Appeals says that Stampf should only get as follows: $100,000 for past emotional distress, $20,000 for future emotional distress and $100,000 in punitive damages, for a total of $250,000 (including $30,000 in economic damages).

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