Obtaining Punitive Damages in a Civil Rights Case

Obtaining punitive damages in a civil rights case should be a goal in every lawsuit where a police officer acted maliciously or in reckless disregard of a person’s civil rights.

Victims of civil rights violations are eligible to receive various forms of monetary damages. One form of damages is called “economic damages.” Economic damages represent lost money—things like lost income, loss of future income, past medical expenses, and the future costs of care. Another form of damages is called “non-economic” or “general” damages. These damages represent intangible harm and are designed to compensate a victim for things like pain and suffering, mental and emotional distress, disfigurement, and loss of enjoyment of life. Economic and non-economic damage can be very substantial in a case involving serious injuries.

But there is also another form of damages called “punitive damages.” Punitive damages are literally meant to punish someone who violates another’s civil rights and to deter that person or others from committing future civil rights violations. Punitive damages can be sought in the appropriate case by victims of excessive force by police, or by victims of civil rights violations by jail personnel.

There are certain legal requirements that must be met in order to obtain punitive damages in a federal civil rights case. To begin with, the victim must prove that the wrongdoer acted with actual malice or reckless indifference to their civil rights. In other words, the civil rights violation must have been more than just a violation of the law—it must have been done with a malicious or reckless state of mind. When you think about the purpose of punitive damages—to punish and deter—this makes sense.

In cases were a person’s actual damages are relatively modest, but the misconduct was egregious, punitive damages can become a primary focus. A case handled by Budge & Heipt in the early 2000s illustrates this point perfectly.

The case arose from egregious racial discrimination by a major U.S. corporation. The conduct in question was extremely offensive and unquestionably a violation of our clients’ civil rights. But the actual damage suffered by our client was relatively low in proportion to the conduct. In fact, the defendant corporation and their lawyers were uninterested in settling the case, taking the position that the relatively low actual damages presented little risk to their client.

In one sense, the defense attorneys were right: to obtain a large court victory, there must usually be evidence of large actual damages (either economic, non-economic or both). But this case was one of the rare ones, because it involved strong evidence that the misconduct was both malicious and reckless. We believed the jury would be as outraged as we were and would want to punish and deter the misconduct even if it did not find our client to be badly damaged. We decided to go to trial and make punitive damages our main focus.

We were correct. After a jury trial of approximately two weeks, the jurors came back with their verdict: a modest amount of actual damages, plus $5 million in punitive damages. The jurors were indeed outraged by the actions of the company’s managers. Even the judge wrote that the outrageous misconduct of the defendant company was “obvious to everyone in the courtroom.” Hopefully, the defendant corporation really did learn an important lesson.

Erik Heipt is an experienced courtroom litigator, focusing on catastrophic injury or wrongful death in prison or jail or by police. He helps families and victims seek punitive damages in civil rights cases. Contact Budge & Heipt for a free consultation.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of serious injury and/or death at the hands of police or in jail or prison, tell us about your case.