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Seventh Circuit Vacates, Remands Punitive Damages Award Against Wexford

by Derek Gilna

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has remanded a prisoner’s lawsuit against Wexford Health Sources, Inc., the healthcare provider for Illinois’ Department of Corrections, for either a reduced punitive damages award or a new trial on the issue of damages. 

After experiencing ankle pain in 2010, prisoner Donald E. Beard, Jr. filed suit claiming that he was denied proper treatment from Wexford and its staff. 

Beard’s pro se complaint alleged “that members of the prison’s medical staff and administrative team were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical need in violation of the Eighth Amendment (applied to the states through the Fourteenth), and he sought damages plus injunctive relief. The district court recruited counsel, who added Wexford as a defendant and stipulated to the dismissal of the individual defendants.” 

The case went to trial and the jury awarded Beard $10,000 in compensatory damages plus $500,000 in punitive damages. However, the district court reduced the punitive award to $50,000, finding it was excessive and arbitrary, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. Beard appealed.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages ... will satisfy due process,” the district court did not adequately explain its rationale for its reduction, the appellate court wrote.

According to the Seventh Circuit’s August 21, 2018 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has “instructed courts to review whether an award of punitive damages exceeds the Due Process Clause’s bounds by considering the reprehensibility of the defendant’s conduct, the ratio between punitive and compensatory damages, and any civil penalties that punish similar behavior.” 

While the district court was correct in offering Beard the option of a reduced damages award, it also should have offered a new damages trial as an alternative; its failure to do so was a “procedural misstep.” 

The Court of Appeals concluded: “We vacate the judgment and remand for the district court to offer Beard the choice between a reduced punitive-damages award and a new trial limited to damages, we also vacate the award of attorney’s fees and costs.” 

Following remand, the case settled in January 2019. Beard was represented by attorney Thomas J. Pliura. See: Beard v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc., 900 F.3d 951 (7th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Beard v. Wexford Health Sources, Inc.