August 12, 2015

Ninth Circuit clarifies standard for recovering punitive damages in failure-to-protect claims against police officers (Castro v. County of Los Angeles)

This Ninth Circuit opinion clarifies the showing necessary to recover punitive damages for certain types of lawsuit against government officials under 42 U.S.C. section 1983.

The plaintiff, Jonathan Castro, was arrested for public intoxication and placed into a "sobering cell" at the local police station.  While he was in custody, he was savagely beaten by another intoxicated arrestee, leaving him with permanent traumatic brain injuries.

Castro sued the officers on duty, claiming they violated his civil rights by placing a violent inmate in his cell and failing to supervise them.  After a jury trial, he recovered $2.6 million in compensatory damages plus $18,000 in punitive damages.  The officers appealed.

The officers argued, among other things, that the evidence did not support an award of punitive damages.  That required the Ninth Circuit to examine the standards for recovery of punitive damages in cases like this.  The liability standard for failure-to-protect claims is whether the defendants acted with "deliberate indifference" to a substantial risk of serious harm.  Punitive damages are available when the defendant acted with "reckless or callous indifference" to federally protected rights of others.

These definitions raise the question whether there a difference between "deliberate indifference" and "reckless or callous indifference."  In other words, once a plaintiff establishes liability, does the plaintiff need to prove anything else to get punitive damages?  The Ninth Circuit answered "no."  The court concluded that the terms are effectively synonymous.  Accordingly, once the jury in this case found that the defendant acted with deliberate indifference, the jury was free to tack on punitive damages.