Thursday, September 24, 2020

No medical expenses for excessive force plaintiff

The plaintiff won his police misconduct trial, no easy feat. Did you know that most trials result in a defendant's verdict? Not this one. The jury found that the officer used excessive force against plaintiff, awarding him $38,000 for pain and suffering and $30,000 in punitive damages. Plaintiff appeals because the jury did not award him any money for his medical bills. 

The case is Humphrey v. Waterbury Police Department, a summary order issued on September 22. Plaintiff says that he spent $121,158 in medical bills. Why didn't the jury reimburse him for this? Clients may not fully appreciate this, but trial courts, and appellate courts, do not like to second-guess jury verdicts. That is what happens here.

Plaintiff did suffer injuries as a result of the excessive force. Plaintiff sued officer Crea. While plaintiff says that Crea taunted him and tried to bring him to the ground. But he also testified that other officers struck him. He did not identify Crea as the officer who had struck him in the eye that resulted in hospitalization and extensive medical bills. On the basis of this testimony, we have to presume the jury thought that another officer was actually responsible for these injuries, not Crea. As the trial judge wrote in rejecting plaintiff's post-trial efforts to recover the medical expenses, "the jury's findings are consistent with a possibility that the jury based its damages verdict solely on Crea's taunting of Humphrey and tackling him to the ground rather than Crea's infliction of a particular blows that caused medical expenses."

The Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Parker, and Park) agrees with the district court ruling. The Second Circuit notes that "a finding of excessive force  . . . does not automatically entitle a claimant to compensatory damages as a matter of law." That's true. To win damages, you have to prove them. In reviewing the jury's verdict and damages award, the courts will see if there is any way the jury theoretically could have honestly reached that result. Note that I said theoretically. The jury is usually not asked to specify its reasoning. It normally determines if there was liability and how much money the plaintiff will recover (if he wins). The point is that any evidence in the record (even if the jury did not actually consider it) may be cited in defending the verdict. And that is why it's so hard to challenge or change jury verdicts.

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