How much would you sell your constitutional rights for? Would you give up your right to be free from police beatings? Would you sell your rights for one dollar?
Most of us could not sell our rights except for a lot of money. Under this thinking, then, constitutional rights have inherent value. When these rights are deprived, whether or not we suffer any injuries at all, the person who deprived us of our rights should be required to pay.
Unfortunately, this is not the view of federal courts, as Jose Corpus learned. Corpus v. Bennett, No. 04-2603 (8th Cir. Dec. 7, 2005).
Corpus was arrested. While being booked, a jailer beat him up. Fortunately for Corpus' well-being, he was a sturdy fellow. He wasn't badly injured by the beating.
He then sued the jailer under 42 U.S.C. 1983, which provides a cause of action in federal court for constitutional rights violations. At trial, the jury determined Mr. Corpus did not suffer any injuries. (Or did they? Keep reading.) They thus awarded him "nominal" damages. One problem: They awarded nominal damages of $75,000. (The judge reduced the award to $1 - the issue on appeal.) The jury, perhaps like you and me, must have thought that a person's rights have intrinsic value.
Or perhaps not. The plaintiffs presented evidence that Mr. Corpus suffered some long-lasting injuries. So what was the jury thinking when it awarded "nominal" damages of $75,000?
Judge Gruender, writing on behalf of a 2-1 panel of the Eighth Circuit affirmed. Relying on some special jury forms, the majority concludes that the jury intended to award only nominal damages; and thus the district court was correct to reduce the damage award from $75,000 to $1, because as a matter of law, "nominal" means a buck or so.
The problem with the majority's conclusion is that the special jury verdict form told the jury as follows: "If you find that plaintiff is entitled to a verdict in accordance with these instructions, but do not find that the plaintiff has sustained substantial damages, then you may return a verdict for plaintiff in some nominal sum such as one dollar."
Now, $75,000 does not, by any definition, qualify as "some nominal sum such as one dollar." So what was the jury thinking? Moreover, as Judge Bright notes in his dissenting opinion:
It is obvious that the jury did not follow the district court’s instructions and had the trial judge who charged the jury been available to receive the verdict these conflicts may have been clarified. But, in fact, a different judge accepted the verdict, commenting: “Obviously I don’t know much about it[,] but I’m guessing you paid careful attention . . . . I have to go back to my courtroom and back to trial.” The jury was then discharged without clarifying the uncertainty surrounding its verdict answers, and it appears counsel did not receive an opportunity to inspect the verdict and object to the inconsistency.
Amazing. In other words, the judge who instructed the jury did not receive the verdict; and the judge who received the verdict didn't care about the obvious inconsistency between the jury's awarding nominal damages, and awarding $75,000 in damages. Judge Bright thinks that Mr. Corpus deserves a new trial.
The majority's opinion was right enough only because it assumed that there wasn't any juror confusion. But, by definition, when a jury awards "nominal" damages of $75,000, there was some confusion. The judge who received the verdict didn't care to investigate. He should have. It was an abuse of judicial discretion to not investigation.
Judge Bright gets the best of this argument, wrapping it up with this nice bow: "All that can be said with any confidence from this record is that the jury did not follow the district court's instructions."