Respondent was incarcerated in the Western Regional Jail. Respondent alleges that on August 24, 2015, he was taken to a visitation room by Petitioners, all of whom were correctional officers at the jail. While still in handcuffs and shackles, Respondent alleges that he was choked and beaten by Petitioners resulting in physical and emotional injuries. Respondent filed suit setting forth state law claims and a federal claim arising under 42 USC §1983. The jury found that Petitioners had, indeed, violated Respondent’s constitutional rights in violation of §1983. However, the jury awarded no compensatory damages. Against each of the three Petitioners, the jury awarded $1,500 in punitive damages--for a total of $4,500. Respondent asked to have the jury resume deliberations so it could award at least nominal damages. Petitioners objected and the trial court dismissed the jury. Judgment was later entered consistent with the verdict.
Petitioners moved for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), arguing that an award of punitive damages was improper without an award of compensatory damages. The trial court denied Petitioner’s motion, finding that under federal law “damages are presumed from the wrongful deprivation of a constitutional right.” Petitioners appeal that ruling.
In a case brought under §1983, is an award of punitive damages permissible without an award of compensatory damages?
The Supreme Court reaffirmed that, as a matter of West Virginia law, a recovery of compensatory damages is necessary before punitive damages can be recovered. Here, however, Respondent’s claim was premised on federal law—i.e., on §1983, which provides a remedy for the violation of federal civil rights. The question, then, was whether the same rule applied in §1983 cases.
The Court relied heavily on Batista v. Weir, 340 F.2d 74 (3d Cir. 1965). Batista concluded that “the benefits of [§1983] were intended to be uniform throughout the United States.” To promote uniformity, federal courts were given the power to develop federal common law. With that in mind, Batista rejected the applicable Pennsylvania law which (like West Virginia law) would have prevented recovery of punitive damages without compensatory damages as a predicate. Citing other federal cases, the Supreme Court determined that damages are, in fact, presumed in a §1983 case once a finding of liability has been made. Therefore, in the §1983 context, an actual compensatory recovery is unnecessary to support punitive damages.
The Court also concluded that the Fourth Circuit case cited by Petitioners was not a §1983 case and, therefore, was inapplicable. Instead, the Court was persuaded by the “overwhelming majority of federal case law” that followed Batista. With Batista as a guide, the Court adopted the following syllabus:
“A jury may award punitive damages subsequent to finding liability for a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim without an accompanying award of nominal or compensatory damages. To the extent that this holding is inconsistent with Syllabus point 1 of Garnes v. Fleming Landfill, Inc., 186 W. Va. 656, 413 S.E.2d 897 (1991), modified on other grounds by Perrine v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 225 W. Va. 482, 694 S.E.2d 815 (2010), that case is expressly modified.”
Justice Hutchison concurred in part and dissented in part, concluding that the majority failed to “address the real problem in the case.” According to Justice Hutchison, the jury’s verdict was internally inconsistent. How, he asked, could the jury find that Petitioners violated Respondent’s civil rights by engaging in a battery, but then give no money in its verdict to compensate for the resulting damages? The circuit court should have sent the jury back to return a full and internally consistent verdict. Because that didn’t happen, the case should have been remanded for a retrial limited to the issue of damages only.
The Supreme Court’s ruling is consistent with both federal law and the remedial purposes behind §1983. In isolation, the case will not have a major impact. Hopefully, however, it signals that the Court is willing to give §1983 and similar state-law remedies a broad, pro-victim interpretation in future cases.