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$380,000 Award Against Louisiana Sheriff and Deputy Upheld in Jail Rape Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a U.S. District
Court's award of punitive and compensatory damages to a plaintiff who was
beaten and raped in jail. Plaintiff, a white male, filed a §1983 action
against a Louisiana sheriff and deputy sheriff after he was jailed on
misdemeanor charges and placed in a cell block with numerous other
prisoners, all of whom were black and most of whom faced felony charges,
where he was beaten and eventually raped. A jury found in the plaintiff's
favor and assessed compensatory damages of $70,000 against the sheriff and
deputy, and punitive damages of $205,000 against the sheriff and $105,000
against the deputy.

Defendants appealed, asserting the evidence was insufficient to find in the
Plaintiff's favor; they should have been immune from prosecution; and
punitive damages were excessive and the trial court's standard for
assessing them was wrong.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held: 1) Evidence showing "the
jail was administered in a manner virtually indifferent to the safety of
prisoners and that this was the direct cause of [Plaintiff's] injuries" and
that "no effort had been made to classify prisoners" was sufficient to
uphold the jury's verdict. 2) Defendant's good faith argument, which was
more favorable to them than it should have been, was rejected by the jury;
therefore, the trial court did not err in refusing to grant qualified
immunity to defendants. 3) The trial court's instructions to the jury, that
they may assess punitive damages if they found that "the act or omission
'which proximately caused the injury or damage ... was maliciously or
wantonly or oppressively done'" were "well within the boundaries of
traditional tort standards for assessing punitive damages." Moreover,
damage awards approved by a trial judge are to be overturned only when it
is "contrary to right reason or for a clear abuse of discretion." The award
in the instant case was sustainable based on the evidence. See: Stokes v.
Delcambre, 710 F.2d 1120 (5th Cir. 1983).

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Related legal case

Stokes v. Delcambre

Stokes v. Delcambre, 710 F.2d 1120 (5th Cir. 08/01/1983)


[2] No. 82-4343.

[3] 710 F.2d 1120

[4] August 1, 1983


[6] Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.

[7] DOMENGEAUX & WRIGHT, P.O. Box 3668, Lafayette, LA, 70502, Robert K. Tracy, P.O. Box 3668, Lafayette, LA 70502, for Appellant

[8] MORROW & MORROW, 136 W. Bellevue St., Opelousas, LA, 70570, Patrick C. Morrow, 136 W. Bellevue St., Opelousas, LA, 70570, Jeffrey M. Bassett, 136 W. Bellevue St., Opelousas, LA 70570, for Appellee

[9] Author: Higginbotham

[10] Before INGRAHAM, WILLIAMS and HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judges.

[11] PATRICK E. HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judge:

[12] This is an appeal from a jury verdict awarding substantial compensatory and punitive damages to a Mississippi college student against a Louisiana sheriff and his deputy for injuries suffered while jailed on a misdemeanor charge. Finding that the trial court applied the proper legal standards and finding sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict, we affirm.

[13] On Monday, August 13, 1979, Thomas Stokes, a twenty-one year old white male, was driving after work at his summer job with three co-workers in a pickup truck. A beer bottle was allegedly thrown from the window of the pickup and broke at the feet of two men walking along the side of the highway.*fn1

[14] The "pedestrians" enlisted the aid of Deputy Demarcay of the Vermillion Parish Police. Unable to identify who in the truck threw the bottle, Demarcay arrested all four occupants and booked them into the Vermillion Parish Jail. Stokes had never been arrested before.

[15] On their arrival at the jail, one of the four called their supervisor and left a message with an answering service describing their situation. At about 6:00 p.m. the book-in procedure was completed. The four were taken to the bull pen in the north cell block. The cell block had four cells although each was locked when the four arrived. The bull pen served as a common area or dayroom for the cells and had a shower, commode and sink with two picnic tables but no bunks. Each of the arrestees received a bare mattress on which to sleep.

[16] Around 7:00 a.m. the next morning, trusties brought a breakfast of bread and chocolate milk. The cells were then unlocked, releasing a dozen other prisoners into the bull pen area. All of them were black and virtually all faced felony charges. Shortly thereafter, Stokes and Wayne Shows, another of the four, entered one of the cells where a television was playing. At approximately 10:30 a.m., Otis Howard, a black male charged with burglary and armed robbery, entered the cell. As Otis pummeled Stokes, "Boo Boo" Dixon, a two hundred forty-five pound male who was jailed on charges that included aggravated rape, began to slug Shows. He also shoved Stokes, causing Stokes to strike his head and cut his scalp. Stokes was by the time bleeding profusely from the head wound and a broken nose. Despite much screaming and yelling, no jailer came. Stokes made his way back to the bull pen leaving a trail of blood which the prisoners attempted to wipe up with a sheet. Stokes made his way to one of the cells. Lunch was served by the trusties but no jailer came in.

[17] Stokes explained that throughout this time he asked the other prisoners for help which was refused. He explained that he was fearful of going to the front of the cell block: Boo Boo had told him if he complained he would be sent out on a stretcher and had suggested that it would be difficult for him to talk with his throat cut. At Boo Boo's direction, Stokes washed his clothes in the urinal in an effort to remove the fresh blood. Romero, on the other hand, testified that he saw Stokes after the "fight," but that Stokes refused assistance saying it was just a little "scrimmage."

[18] At approximately 6:00 p.m., a jailer entered the bull pen area and, at the direction of Boo Boo, Stokes requested a carton of cigarettes. This was the first time according to Stokes that he had seen a jailer since breakfast. The cigarettes were delivered and were taken by Boo Boo. Boo Boo then sexually assaulted Stokes, compelling him to engage in anal and oral sex. Wayne Shows suffered a similar fate.

[19] The next morning, weak from loss of blood and feigning illness, Stokes attempted to attract attention when breakfast was served. When Romero, the deputy on duty, was shown his cut, Boo Boo, who was standing immediately beside Stokes, asserted that Stokes had fallen from his bunk. Romero asked if that was what happened and Stokes, fearful of saying otherwise, agreed. Romero then said, "I can't let you go to the hospital. I sent a boy to the hospital yesterday and they couldn't find anything wrong with him. Go back to your cell." It turned out that no person had been sent to the hospital the previous day. Later, two trusties carried Stokes from the cell block where he was handcuffed and taken to the hospital. Late that afternoon, Stokes' parents arrived from Mississippi and obtained his release.

[20] Stokes and Shows filed a suit in federal court supported by both diversity and Civil Rights Act jurisdiction. They asserted constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and negligence under Louisiana law against the parish, North River Insurance Company, Sheriff Euda L. Delcambre and Deputy Alton Romero. Shows decided not to pursue his case and dismissed his claim before trial. The claims against the police jury, as well as additional claims relating to the legality of Stokes' arrest, were dismissed at the close of plaintiff's case.

[21] The trial court instructed the jury as to the law of negligence and explained with regard to the constitutional claims that:

[22] A prisoner in a jail has a constitutional right to be reasonably protected from the constant threat of violence and physical assault from his fellow inmates. To obtain relief, he must show a pervasive risk of harm to inmates from other prisoners, and he must show that the prison officials have failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent prisoners from intentionally inflicting harm or creating unreasonable risk of harm to other prisoners.

[23] He further explained to the jury that if they found Sheriff Delcambre or Deputy Romero

[24] knew or should have known that the failure to fulfill this obligation of creating reasonable safety in the jail posed a danger to the Plaintiff, and knowning of the danger . . . failed to take reasonable steps to protect the Plaintiff . . .

[25] they should hold them responsible. So instructed the jury found in answer to special interrogatories that both Delcambre and Romero violated Stokes' constitutional rights and that Sheriff Delcambre was guilty of negligence as well, all of which were proximate causes of injury. Finally, the jury found that Stokes was not contributorily negligent. The jury then awarded $70,000 in compensatory damages against Sheriff Delcambre and Alton Romero and $205,000 in punitive damages against the sheriff and $105,000 in punitive damages against his deputy. On this verdict, the trial court entered judgment against the sheriff, the deputy and North River Insurance Company for all damages and denied defendants' motion for new trial and alternatively for judgment n.o.v.

[26] Defendants urge: (1) there was insufficient evidence that they violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights; (2) they were protected by the doctrine of qualified immunity and this protection warranted a directed verdict; (3) the trial court's standard for punitive damages was incorrect; (4) plaintiff's counsel improperly made a Golden Rule final argument; (5) the award of punitive damages was excessive; (6) the award of punitive damages reflected a quotient verdict; (7) there were errors in the voir dire examination; (8) character evidence was erroneously excluded; and (9) the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to allow the jury to view the jail.

[27] Sufficiency of Evidence on Liability

[28] Defendants attack the district court's denial of a directed verdict and j.n.o.v. The standard of review is "whether reasonable men could, under any theory submitted to the jury, have resolved the dispute as the jury did." Thompson v. Bass,616 F.2d 1259, 1267 (5th Cir.1980), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 983, 101 S. Ct. 399, 66 L. Ed. 2d 245 (1980). See also Boeing Co. v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365 (5th Cir.1969) (en banc). Defendants urge that the evidence was insufficient to support the jury's finding that Delcambre and Romero violated Stokes' constitutional rights.

[29] In Jones v. Diamond, 636 F.2d 1364 (5th Cir.1981), we found confinement in a prison "where terror reigns" to be cruel and unusual punishment. Specifically, we found that failure to control or separate prisoners who endanger the physical safety of other prisoners can constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Id. 1374. But we here need not dwell on the difference in rights enjoyed by pre-trial detainees and convicted persons or the maturation of prisoners' rights in general. Suffice it to say that it is as clear now as it was in June 1979 that all jailers owe a constitutionally rooted duty to their prisoners to provide them reasonable protection from injury at the hands of their fellow prisoners.

[30] There was ample evidence from which the jury could have concluded that the jail was administered in a manner virtually indifferent to the safety of prisoners and that this was a direct cause of Stokes' injuries. The jail in times past had a glass viewing panel through which the jailers could observe the prisoners. The panel had been broken several times and at all pertinent times here was shut with a metal panel. The jury could have concluded that this made effective passive viewing of the cell block impossible and supported what became essentially a "reign of terror."

[31] The evidence also showed that no effort had been made to classify prisoners by offense or in any other way and that self-appointed prison "leaders" exercised their sovereignty by assigning prisoners to cells. Specifically, there was space for the separation of the four young, white males, but it was not used. The result was to allow Stokes to be vulnerably isolated away from the security of his friends. This was coupled with evidence from which the jury could have concluded that the jailer refused to investigate the screams of Stokes and Shows for help. The indifference to, indeed the acceptance of, fighting in the jail strengthened the hold of the violent prisoners as did the failure to separate Stokes from his assailants or discipline them for their actions when, according to Romera, they learned of the assaults. We will return to the evidence in our review of the punitive damage awards. It is sufficient for now to conclude that ample evidence supported the jury's conclusion that defendants violated Stokes' constitutional rights.

[32] Whether expressed in Fifth or Eighth Amendment terms, this constitutional right is not here translated into segmented obligations such as an obligation to classify prisoners, or to provide adequate space for exercise. That is, this is not a case that addresses what is popularly referred to as jail reform. It is instead a civil suit for compensation for injuries flowing from a deprivation of a basic liberty interest defined by the trial court as the ". . . right to be reasonably protected from the constant threat of violence and physical assault from his fellow inmates." The trial court, as earlier noted, required a pervasive risk of harm and a failure to take reasonable steps to prevent the known risk.

[33] We are not asked to review the district court's formulation of constitutional duty and we do not decide whether a standard demanding less exacting proof would have been sufficient. We decide today only that the jury's findings under the charges were supported by the evidence and a deprivation of Stokes' rights under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

[34] Qualified Immunity

[35] Defendants contend that the trial court erred in denying their motion for directed verdict for the reason that their defense of qualified immunity was sound as a matter of law. We note at the outset that qualified immunity is an affirmative defense that must be pleaded by a defendant. Defendants did not do so here. The trial court denial is sustainable for that reason alone. Regardless of entitlement, the district court did submit a good faith defense to the jury and the jury rejected it. We do not pass upon its correctness but we note that the submission favored defendants in requiring Stokes to prove that the defendants acted without good faith. Nor does the recent change in the formulation of qualified immunity assist the defendants. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald,457 U.S. 800, 102 S. Ct. 2727, 73 L. Ed. 2d 396 (1982). That change was the deletion of the subjective good faith component. Since Harlow, the inquiry is the objective one of whether the law was clear as to plaintiff's entitlement to the right assertedly taken away. As we explained in Trejo v. Perez,693 F.2d 482 (5th Cir.1982):

[36] [T]he inquiry is what a reasonable officer knew or should have known. The court effectively created a two level progressive inquiry:

[37] (1) Was the law clearly established at the time? If the answer to this threshold question is no, the official is immune.

[38] (2) If the answer is yes, the immunity defense ordinarily should fail unless the official claims extraordinary circumstances and can prove that he neither knew nor should have known that his acts invaded settled legal rights.

[39] Id. at 485.

[40] There can be no serious question but that at the time of these assaults it was known that a sheriff owed to his prisoner the constitutionally rooted obligation not to detain him in a manner which made it likely he would be beaten and sexually assaulted. If such a state of facts existed as the jury here was entitled to find, it was equally entitled to reject the good faith of the defendants, which it did. In sum, defendants received a more favorable submission of their "defense" of good faith than they were legally entitled to. The trial court did not err in refusing to grant a directed verdict in defendants' favor on immunity grounds.

[41] Punitive Damages

[42] Defendants urge that the jury charge regarding punitive damages was improper, that there was insufficient evidence to support them, that they were the product of a quotient verdict, and that they were excessive. The charges stated that if the act or omission "which proximately caused the injury or damage to the Plaintiff . . . was maliciously or wantonly or oppressively done, then you may . . . add to the award of actual damages such amount as you shall unanimously agree to be proper as punitive damages." The contention is that an award of punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 must be supported by proof that the complained-of conduct was intended, and that under this standard there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict. The intentional conduct standard was recently rejected by the Supreme Court in Smith v. Wade,461 U.S. 30, 103 S. Ct. 1625, 75 L. Ed. 2d 632 (U.S.1983). In Smith, a prisoner was beaten and sexually assaulted and an "egregious failure of the guards to protect" the prisoner was found. The Court held that traditional tort standards were proper measures for an award of punitive damages in § 1983 suits and specifically upheld a standard of recklessness for assessing punitive damages under § 1983 over the contended-for intent standard. Id. at ,103 S. Ct. at 1635. The standard imposed by the trial court of malicious or wanton or oppressive acts here was well within the boundaries of traditional tort standards for assessing punitive damages. It was therefore proper.

[43] Alternatively it is urged that there was insufficient evidence to support the award of punitive damages. "Punitive damages are awarded in the jury's discretion "to punish [the defendant] for his outrageous conduct and to deter him and others like him from similar conduct in the future." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 908(1) (1977). The focus is one the character of the tortfeasor's conduct -- whether it is of the sort that calls for deterrence and punishment over and above that provided by compensatory awards." Smith v. Wade, U.S. at ,103 S. Ct. at 1639.