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New Hampshire Supreme Court Reverses Guard’s $2 Million Verdict

The New Hampshire Supreme Court overturned a $2 million award to two prison guards who were fired based on false reports, holding the award exceeds the state law cap.

The facts giving rise to the lawsuit came from the April 12, 2005 cell extraction of a prisoner at the New Hampshire State Prison. The prisoner claimed he was injured by two guards who used excessive force upon him. Initially, the prisoner implicated guards Shawn Stone and Todd Conner.

Following the extraction, Stone, Conner, and guards Joseph Laramie and Timothy Hallam wrote reports on the incident. Hallam’s report mentioned the alleged assault but did not state that the prisoner had specifically accused Stone and Conner.

A week after the incident, Stone and Conner wrote new reports. This time, they stated they saw Laramie assaulting the prisoner during the extraction. Conner’s report said he told Hallam that he saw Laramie punching the prisoner.

Following an investigation, Laramie and Hallam were fired in July. An appeal to the personnel appeals board (PAB) resulted in an evidentiary hearing. The PAB concluded the terminations were unjust, and it reinstated them with back pay, benefits and seniority. Hallam remained on medical leave for psychiatric issues that ended in retirement on medical disability.

Laramie and Hallam filed separate multi-count complaints that alleged, inter alia, intentional interference with contractual relations and invasion of privacy (false light). The suits were consolidated and preceded to trial. A jury awarded Laramie $650,000 and Hallam $1.3 million. The defendants, Stone and Conner, appealed that verdict.

They raised five issues on appeal. The New Hampshire Supreme Court found no error in allowing Hallam’s psychologist to testify as an expert, in admitting evidence of the PAB reinstatement, and in the trial court’s refusal to set the verdict aside based on the counsel’s closing argument. On the other two issues, the Court found error and ordered a new damages trial.

At trial, Dr. Arthur Kenison presented a formula the jury could use to calculate what Hallam’s loss of earning capacity might be. In finding error, the Court held, “Hallam has not shown impairment of earning capacity with the reasonable certainty or reasonable probability that would permit the jury to arrive at a pecuniary value of the loss,” for this “injury involves complex psychological and mental health conditions, the future effects of which are unknown.”

The court further found error because the jury’s award exceeded the statutory cap in RSA 541-B:14, I. It provides, in relevant part: “All claims arising out of any single incident against any agency for damages in tort actions shall be limited to an award not to exceed $475,000 per claimant.” Legislative history, the Court said, supports the conclusion the cap governs “all actions for damages against state employees unless otherwise specifically stated.” It also rejected an argument that the plaintiffs could receive $950,000, or $475,000 from each defendant, because the “false reports arose out of a single incident.”

The matter was affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded for further proceedings. See: Laramie v. Stone, 999 A.2d 262 (N.H. 2010).

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Related legal case

Laramie v. Stone