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Fifth Circuit Reverses Beaten Louisiana Prisoner's $1.5 Million Jury Award

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the award of $1.5 million to a beaten prisoner by a federal jury, granting the defendants a new trial on damages.

John Poullard, a Louisiana state prisoner, sued guards Joseph Turner, Lonnie Edmonds, Michael Levatino and Don Thames in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 after Turner, Edmonds and Levatino beat him. Turner, Edmonds and Levatino allegedly beat Pollard in his cell for refusing to drop a lawsuit against Edmonds and an administrative complaint against Levatino. Edmonds also beat him in the back of a patrol car on the way to the hospital. Poullard suffered fractures to both ankles requiring surgery and various lesser injuries to other parts of the body. The injuries caused Poullard to be confined to a wheelchair for two and one-half months. Following a jury trial in which Poullard represented himself, the jury awarded him $750,000 in compensatory damages and $750,000 in punitive damages [PLN, Apr. `02].

Defendants appealed based on a defective jury instruction which appears to have been a simple error by a pro se litigant. At trial, Poullard specifically stated that he was not seeking any damages for mental anguish. However, the district court instructed the jury that they could award damages for past and future mental anguish and told them that Poullard need not provide evidence of mental pain to be compensated.

A panel of the Fifth Circuit found that the instruction left substantial and ineradicable doubt on whether the jury had been properly guided in its deliberations. For that reason, a new trial on compensatory damages is required. A new trial on punitive damages is also required since punitive damages must bear a reasonable relationship to compensatory damages and the same jury that determines compensatory damages must also determine punitive damages. The judgment was vacated and the case returned to the district court for a new trial on damages only. Judge Garza dissented and would have affirmed the district court. The defendants' other challenges to judgment were rejected. See: Poullard v. Turner, 298 F.3d 421 (5th Cir. 2002).

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Related legal case

Poullard v. Turner

Poullard v. Tuner, 298 F.3d 421 (5th Cir. 07/16/2002)

[1] U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

[2] No. 01-30587

[3] 298 F.3d 421, 2002

[4] July 16, 2002


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

[7] Before Davis, Emilio M. Garza, and Stewart, Circuit Judges.

[8] The opinion of the court was delivered by: W. Eugene Davis, Circuit Judge

[9] John Poullard, a pro se Louisiana prisoner incarcerated in Angola, sued prison guards Joseph Turner, Lonnie Edmonds, Michael Levatino, and Don Thames for violations of his civil and Eighth Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court entered judgment on a jury verdict in favor of Poullard for $750,000 in compensatory damages and $750,000 in punitive damages. We remand for new trial on damages.

[10] I.

[11] Poullard was beaten in his cell by Turner, Edmonds, and Levatino, allegedly with billy clubs and allegedly because he had refused to drop a lawsuit against Edmonds and an administrative complaint against Levatino. Poullard also claimed that, later that day, Edmonds beat him with his fist while Poullard was in the back seat of a patrol vehicle on his way to the hospital.

[12] Poullard's treating physician testified that he suffered fractures to both ankles, one of which required surgery, and an assortment of lesser injuries to other parts of the body. He was confined to a wheelchair for two and one-half months.

[13] The jury awarded $750,000 compensatory and $750,000 punitive damages. The court rejected the defendants' motions for new trial on liability and damages.

[14] The defendants argue that the district court erred in denying their motion for new trial on both liability and damages. For reasons that will become obvious, we consider first their arguments that the district court's jury instruction on damages were erroneous, requiring a new trial on compensatory damages.

[15] II.

[16] At trial, Poullard explicitly disclaimed any intention to seek damages for mental anguish or emotional distress.*fn1 Nevertheless, the court charged the jury that

[17] You may award damages for bodily injury that the plaintiff sustained and any pain and suffering and/or mental anguish that the plaintiff experienced in the past or will experience in the future as a result of the injury. No evidence of the value of intangible things, such as mental or physical pain has been or need be introduced. (Emphasis added.)

[18] Before the jury began deliberations, defendants' counsel specifically objected to this language, correctly pointing out that "Mr. Poullard stated, quite affirmatively, ... that he had no claims for mental pain and suffering and mental anguish." This satisfies the requirement that a "party must object to a jury charge before the jury begins its deliberations in order to preserve its right to appeal that jury charge, unless the error is so fundamental as to be a miscarriage of justice."*fn2

[19] "We must vacate an award [of damages] if the jury charge as a whole leaves substantial and ineradicable doubt whether the jury has been properly guided in its deliberations."*fn3 The jury could not have been properly guided in its deliberations if the court instructed it to consider possible damages for mental anguish despite the plaintiff's own denial that he was seeking any such damages. Moreover, the likelihood that the jury was improperly influenced by the instructions is exacerbated by the court's statements that the jury could consider future as well as past and present anguish and by the instruction that the plaintiff was not required to give any estimate of the value of intangible items, including mental distress. Damages were not itemized, so it is impossible to determine what sum, if any, the jury awarded for mental anguish to permit us to reduce the total award by that amount. This error requires us to grant a new trial on compensatory damages.

[20] III.

[21] It is a well-established principle that punitive damages must bear a "reasonable relationship" to compensatory damages.*fn4 Although punitive damages are not measured by the extent of injury to a plaintiff, actual damages are a proper factor for consideration by the finder of fact in determining the amount of punitive damages. The D.C. Circuit in Hutchinson v. Stuckey*fn5 concluded that the same jury charged with determining what, if any, award should be made for compensatory damages should be the same jury that awards punitive damages. That Court stated: "We believe a jury should be permitted to consider the amount of actual damages in calculating a punitive damage award. Thus, when a new trial is ordered on actual damages, the question of punitive damages should also be retried."*fn6 Thus, we follow the general rule that when a new trial is granted on compensatory damages, "it must at the same time be granted on the issue of punitive damages."*fn7 We therefore grant a new trial on punitive damages as well as compensatory damages.

[22] IV.

[23] We have considered appellant's remaining arguments and conclude that they are without merit. For reasons stated above, we vacate the judgment below and remand for a new trial on damages only.

[24] Judge Garza would affirm the judgment of the district court and dissents without opinion.



Opinion Footnotes


[26] *fn1 . In response to questioning by the court, Poullard said he "do[esn't] claim no emotional distress or nothing. My lawsuit is for a physical beating. There is no complaint in the lawsuit that I filed on mental anguish or emotional distress."

[27] *fn2 . Brown v. Ames, 201 F.3d 654, 662 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 925 (2000).

[28] *fn3 . Skidmore v. Precision Printing & Packaging, 188 F.3d 606, 614 (5th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted).

[29] *fn4 . BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 116 S.Ct. 1589, 1601 (1996).

[30] *fn5 . 952 F.2d 1418 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

[31] *fn6 . Id. at 1423, citing Pacific Mutual Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip, 111 S.Ct. 1032, 1045 (1991)(upholding constitutionality of punitive damage award in part because "post-verdict review ensures that punitive damages awards are not grossly out of proportion to the severity of the offense and have some understandable relationship to compensatory damages") (emphasis added); and Jordan v. Medley, 711 F.2d 211, 216 (D.C.Cir.1983) (punitive damage award must be set aside and the issue retried when a new trial is ordered on liability and actual damages).

[32] *fn7 . L. Schlueter and K. Redden, Punitive Damages § 6.3(B)(4th 2000).