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HAYWOOD v. KOEHLER

May 10, 1995

KEITH HAYWOOD, Plaintiff, against RICHARD KOEHLER, CAPTAIN GARCIA, CAPTAIN SMALLS, Defendants.

John G. Koeltl, United States District Judge


The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN G. KOELTL

John G. Koeltl, District Judge:

 The evidence at trial showed that on July 31, 1989, at approximately 5:15 p.m., there was a disturbance at the Bronx House of Detention where the plaintiff was incarcerated. The disturbance began when Captain Charles Coles attempted to give inmate Jesus Fernandez a notice of disposition indicating that he was to receive punitive segregation. Fernandez reached through the bars separating him from Captain Coles, grabbed the notice, and threw it in the air. He then began screaming and yelling and throwing hot water. Tr. 493-95, 317, 71. Captain Coles radioed for assistance and Captain Garcia and two other officers responded to the call. Tr. 495-96, 310-13. Fernandez ran into the day-room, a recreational area for the inmates, when guards approached him. Tr. 74, 496-97. Other prisoners in the day-room, including the plaintiff, became involved in the incident. There was evidence that the inmates refused to follow an order to "lock-in" their cells, Tr. 75-76, 322-23, and that a second wave of guards then arrived. Tr. 500, 315, 325, 76.

 Seeking to maintain order, the guards ordered the inmates to stand against the walls of the day-room with a guard facing each inmate while holding a baton horizontal at chest level. Tr. 324-25, 77-78. Captain Garcia testified that during this situation Haywood came at him with part of a broom and that Haywood punched him as he attempted to wrest the broom from him. Captain Garcia acknowledged striking Haywood's arm once with his riot baton and also striking out at him with his fists, all in self-defense. He testified that Haywood then kicked him in the groin, causing him to fall to the floor. Tr. 326-29.

 Haywood told a very different story about his altercation with Captain Garcia. He testified that he was only trying to make peace in the day-room and that, apparently unprovoked, Captain Garcia hit him in the head with a riot baton. Tr. 79. He also testified that after he left the day-room, while being escorted down the corridor to receive medical attention for the injury inflicted by Captain Garcia, he was hit with a baton in the mouth by Captain Small and that the two of them fell to the ground grappling with each other. Tr. 82-83. Haywood alleged that he was then put in a cell where Captain Garcia proceeded to knock him down, kick, and punch him. Tr. 83-85. Captain Garcia denied the existence of any such incident in a cell and the original complaint in this action did not allege one.

 After a four day trial, a jury returned a special verdict solely against defendant Captain Gonzalo Garcia on the plaintiff's claim of unconstitutional use of excessive force, but awarded only nominal damages. The jury declined to award punitive damages and did not find liability on the part of Captain Small and the Department of Correction. The plaintiff now moves for attorney's fees and a new trial on damages pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) on the ground that the jury's failure to award compensatory damages was an abuse of discretion.

 I.

 The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has declared that a motion for a new trial is "committed to the sound discretion of the trial judge." Fiacco v. City of Rensselaer, 783 F.2d 319, 332 (1986) (citations omitted), cert. denied, 480 U.S. 922, 94 L. Ed. 2d 698, 107 S. Ct. 1384 (1987). A motion for a new trial is only to be granted when, "in the opinion of the district court, 'the jury has reached a seriously erroneous result or . . . the verdict is a miscarriage of justice.'" Song v. Ives Labs., 957 F.2d 1041, 1047 (2d Cir. 1992) (citing Smith v. Lightning Bolt Productions, Inc., 861 F.2d 363, 370 (2d Cir. 1988)). Under this standard, the court is free to weigh the evidence itself and may order a new trial even if there is substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict. Id. However, "it is well settled that a trial judge's disagreement with the jury's verdict is not sufficient reason to grant a new trial." Mallis v. Bankers Trust Co., 717 F.2d 683, 691 (2d Cir. 1983) (citations omitted); see also, Bevevino v. Saydjari, 574 F.2d 676, 684-85 (2d Cir. 1978).

 In this case, the plaintiff argues that the jury's award of nominal damages of $ 1 *fn1" is against the weight of the evidence, is seriously erroneous, and constitutes a miscarriage of justice given the jury's finding that Captain Garcia violated the plaintiff's right to be free from excessive force. The plaintiff argues that once the jury found Captain Garcia liable for using excessive force against the plaintiff, it was obligated to find that he was actually injured in some compensable amount. In the circumstances of this case, however, the jury could well have concluded that the injuries sustained by Haywood were the result of the use of justified force by Captain Garcia in attempting to quell a near riot condition and that while Captain Garcia also used excessive force, that use of force was not the cause of any compensable injury.

 In Gibeau v. Nellis, 18 F.3d 107 (2d Cir. 1994), the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that a jury finding of excessive force does not, as a matter of law, require a finding of compensable injury. In Gibeau, a jury found that a defendant had used excessive force against the prisoner plaintiff, but that the use of excessive force had not caused any injury to him. Gibeau sought judgment as a matter of law on the ground that he was entitled to some measure of compensatory damages on account of the finding of liability. The district court denied the motion. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the denial, finding that drawing all inferences in the defendant's favor as required on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, *fn2" a jury could have found that Gibeau failed to establish that his physical injuries were caused by the liable defendant's use of excessive force.

 In Gibeau, the evidence showed that the liable defendant struck the plaintiff three times in the head with a six-inch long, one-half-inch diameter flashlight. The Court of Appeals found that a cut over Gibeau's eye could have been caused by another correction officer rather than by the defendant. The court also concluded that:

 
It is possible that the jury considered only the last blow to be excessive, and it may have concluded that the head contusion was caused by the first blow. More likely, the jury may well have concluded that, given the size of the flashlight, the striking by ...

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