Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

First Circuit: Massachusetts Not Liable for State Employees' Punitive Damages

On September 18, 2015, the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that the former governor and attorney general of Massachusetts could not be sued for failing to indemnify punitive damages awarded against state employees in a civil rights action.

Jason H. Davis, a deceased former patient at Westborough State Hospital, won a federal jury award of compensatory damages against seven state employees who were involved in beating him. He was awarded over $1 million in punitive damages against six of them after the jury found that they harbored ill will toward him.

Because of the employee who was not found to harbor ill will, the state indemnified the compensatory damages award and paid Davis $100,000. It refused to indemnify the punitive damages, citing a state law, Mass. Cep. Laws ch. 258, § 9, which prohibits indemnification of state employees who have "acted in a grossly negligent, willful or malicious manner." Davis was unable to collect any of the punitive damages from the six defendants personally.

After Davis died, the state settled a federal civil rights action brought by the estate of Joshua Messier, a Bridgewater State Hospital patient who was allegedly killed while being restrained. The state paid the estate $2 million.

When Davis's attorney became aware of the Messier settlement, he applied to the governor and attorney general for a similar settlement in the Davis case. They refused. The estate of Davis then filed a federal civil rights action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging equal protection and due process violations. The district court granted defendants' motion to dismiss and Davis appealed.

The First Circuit held that Davis and Messier were not similarly situated for equal protection purposes. The Messier case was settled before trial with no jury findings or punitive damages awarded. Davis refused to settle and took the case to a. jury trial where findings were made that prevented indemnification under state law. Thus, there was no violation of equal protection.

Similarly, there was no due process violation. Messier was settled without any admission of wrongdoing on the part of the state. This is a very different situation from Davis, in which a jury found willful conduct on the part of state employees. The judgment of the district court was affirmed.

See: Davis v. Coakley and Patrick, 1st Cir., No. 14-12306.


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Davis v. Coakley and Patrick