by Kevin W. Bliss
On August 24, 2022, the federal court for the District of Delaware granted a state prison guard’s request and nearly eliminated the damages against him awarded to a prisoner that a jury found had been sexually abused. That chopped the award to the prisoner, De Shawn Drumgo, from $501,000 to just $5,001.
Drumgo filed his suit over a frisk performed by James T. Vaughn Correctional Center guard William Kuschel in May 2014. The prisoner accused the guard of groping him, squeezing his penis so hard that it ruptured a pre-existing abrasion. At trial, Drumgo’s testimony was substantiated by several eyewitnesses. The jury awarded $500,000 in punitive damages, but just $1 nominal damages. Kuschel moved the Court for Judgment Notwithstanding the Verdict (JNOV) and to alter or amend the judgment, or in the alternative hold a new trial. [See: PLN, June 2022, p.30.]
As part of his motion, the guard challenged the Court’s decision to admit testimony at trial from another former prisoner, Marvin Burroughs, who claimed Drumgo groped and injured his penis in the same manner. But Chief Judge Colm F. Connolly dismissed that argument, saying “because [Kuschel’s] counsel never articulated a basis for a finding of unfair prejudice … or stated or suggested in any way that the admission of Burroughs’s testimony would confuse the issues, mislead the jury, cause undue delay, waste time, or present cumulative evidence, I made the discretionary call to admit the testimony.”
The Court was also constrained from granting JNOV by Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 50, which bars a request after a case goes to a jury.
As for the damages award, however, the Court agreed it was excessive. Why? Connolly said he could find just two other cases in which a fully clothed prisoner was sexually assaulted by a guard, and in both the awards were much lower: $5,000 in one case, and $20,000 in the other. However, the Court noted the defendant’s conduct in the latter case “was more egregious.”
“Based on my review of these cases and the cases cited by both parties, I find that the jury’s punitive award in this case was excessive and violated Kuschel’s due process rights,” Judge Connolly declared.
He cut the award to $5,000, to more closely align with the other cases.
“A $500,000 award under the circumstances of this case shocks the conscience and grossly exceeds what was required to serve the needs of deterrence and punishment,” Judge Connolly said. “Leaving in place such an exorbitant award will also dissuade [guards] from conducting searches they would otherwise perform and lead to the introduction of weapons and contraband into Delaware’s prisons.”
Together with his nominal damages award, that left Drumgo with a total of $5,001. He was represented by attorneys Daniel M. Silver, Alexandra M. Joyce and Shannon D. Humiston with McCarter & English LLP in Wilmington. See: Drumgo v. Kuschel, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151888 (D. Del.).
Having previously filed and withdrawn an appeal to the original verdict at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Drumgo has again returned there to challenge this decision. PLN will update developments as they are available. See: Drumgo v. Kuschel, USCA (3rd Cir.), Case No. 22-2771.
Additional Source: AP News
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login