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$15,001 Verdict Against Delaware Guard for Gaping Prisoner’s Butt During Strip Search

by Keith Sanders

On February 6, 2023, Judge Paul Wallace in Delaware Superior Court upheld a jury’s $15,001 award for damages against George Pyle, a guard with the state Department of Corrections (DOC), in a suit filed by Richard M. Chamberlain, a prisoner serving time at Howard R. Young Correctional Institution after a sixth DUI conviction in 2016.

Chamberlain, then 47, alleged in 2017 that Pyle snapped a pair of plastic gloves on his hands and leered, “It’s strip-search time!” The guard then took both hands to spread Chamberlain’s butt cheeks wide and search between them, while fellow guard Bernard Smith stood by watching.

For this humiliation, Chamberlain filed a complaint accusing the prison warden and his guards of conducting a strip search that was “harmful or offensive and unnecessary to enforce prison procedures.” Pyle denied inappropriately touching Chamberlain, but he added during trial that “if he did touch him, it was in accordance with prison rules.”

Pyle was represented by a state attorney who, unsurprisingly, argued the guard did nothing wrong; he simply told Chamberlain that it was time for a strip search, albeit with a smirking grin as he “snapped his gloves on.” Nevertheless, the guard’s actions, the state attorney insisted, were made in “good faith” and “within the scope of his duties.”

Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing they were covered by sovereign immunity in their official capacities and qualified immunity (QI) in their individual capacities. On November 2, 2018, the Court largely agreed, saying that “sovereign immunity boils down to whether or not the State maintains insurance that covers the type of claims asserted in the complaint” – and since Delaware had none, the claim was barred. Judge Sheldon K. Rennie then granted summary judgment to all defendants except Pyle in his individual capacity. See: Chamberlain v. Pyle, 2018 Del. Super. LEXIS 1155.

The case proceeded to trial in December 2022, after which the jury determined that Pyle had “engaged in ‘outrageous’ conduct and that he acted in bad faith with ‘gross or wonton negligence,’” awarding $1 in nominal compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages.

Pyle moved for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) or to reduce or vacate the damage award. But Judge Wallace said that JMOL would require a finding that Pyle’s QI had not been defeated, which it had been.

The state’s Tort Claims Act, the Court said, “shields State employees, such as the DOC [correctional officers], from civil liability if the State employee’s conduct: (1) arose out of and in connection with the performance of official duties involving the exercise of discretion, (2) was …  performed in good faith, and (3) was performed without gross or wanton negligence,” quoting Wonnum v. Way, 2017 Del. Super. LEXIS 361. Here, the Court continued, the jury specifically found that the third factor was missing, so Pyle was not entitled to QI.

As for adjusting the damages award, the Court said that state law says “[r]emittitur is required only when the award of damages is so excessive that it must have been based on passion, prejudice or misconduct, rather than on objective consideration of evidence presented at trial,” quoting Barba v. Bos. Sci. Corp., 2015 Del. Super. LEXIS 537. “The punitive damages award here,” the Court said, “is well within that comparative range and the Court cannot find it unconstitutionally excessive.”

“At its core this motion,” Judge Wallace said, “asks the Court to substitute its own factfinding for that of the jury.” But he instead said “[i]t appears the jury could reasonably, and did, reject Officer Pyle’s testimony as to both his behavior and his lack of bad faith. And through its own resolution of the starkly different accounts found gross and wanton negligence.”

“Officer Pyle asks the Court to ignore the jury’s credibility determinations and the weight the jury gave the evidence,” the judge concluded, adding: “This the Court cannot do.”

Thus Defendant’s motions were denied and the jury verdict affirmed. Chamberlain was represented by Dover attorney Joseph D. Stanley of Schwartz & Schwartz. See: Chamberlain v. Pyle, 2023 Del. Super. LEXIS 61.

Additional source: WBOC