Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The jury found excessive force, but no punitive damages

In this case, the plaintiff went to trial against various police officers, claiming false arrest and excessive force. The trial lasted 11 days. The jury returned a verdict in favor of all the police officers except for one, Liberatore. But the jury also awarded plaintiff zero dollars for pain and suffering. And while the jury determined that Liberatore was liable for punitive damages, the jury awarded plaintiff zero damages in punitive damages. Plaintiff does get one dollar in nominal damages. The verdict was therefore an appeal waiting to happen. But the Court of Appeals affirms and plaintiff gets zero.

The case is Warr v. Liberatore, a summary order issued on March 29. Plaintiff's best argument is that the jury issued an inconsistent verdict in finding that defendant was liable to him for punitive damages, but that defendant does not have to pay any punitive damages. I have never seen such a verdict. Why would the jury find plaintiff has prevailed on a punitive damages claim but then award him nothing in punitives? So we got a good issue on appeal.

Appeals challenging inconsistent verdicts require the Court of Appeals to try to reconcile the verdicts. If any such reconciliation exists, then the appeal will fail. The Second Circuit (Bianco, Parker and Lynch) says the jury instructions said the defendant could be liable for punitives if he maliciously or wantonly used excessive force against plaintiff. The instructions also said that punitive damages are discretionary with the jury, which means the jury does not have to issue them. These are standard jury instructions in police misconduct cases. 

The Court does not see this as a complicated issue. It rules against plaintiff, reasoning as follows:

the jury could have found that Liberatore acted wantonly or maliciously in using excessive force but, under the particular circumstances of this case, that the finding of liability against Liberatore itself was sufficient punishment and deterrence. Moreover, viewing the verdict sheet as a whole, we find nothing in the general verdict or answers to special interrogatories that is inconsistent with the award amount or that would belie the jury’s clear written indication that it meant to award plaintiffs zero dollars in punitive damages."

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