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9th Carves Hole in California's Damages Cap for Sec. 1983 Cases

By William Peacock, Esq. on May 28, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In 2008, a conflict between a police officer and an autistic 21-year-old man came to a tragic end when the officer shot and killed Mohammad Usman Chaudhry. Officer Joseph Cruz initially claimed self-defense, that Chaudhry had come at him with a knife. But the evidence all pointed to a case of excessive force.

That case, along with many other allegations, led to a $1.7 million verdict against Cruz and the City of Los Angeles, but a federal district judge nixed $1 million in damages for excessive force based on the victim's pain and suffering, as such awards are not allowed under California state law.

The family appealed.

State Law Controls Damages, Except When it Doesn't

There is a general rule that state law controls damages in §1983 cases, but the panel crafted an exception for when state law conflicts with the fundamental policies underlying the statute. Here, Code of Civil Procedure §377.34, which bars pre-death pain and suffering damages, conflicts with the underlying deterrence policy of §1983.

"Even in cases of slow death where pre-death economic damages might be available, § 377.34's limitation will often be tantamount to a prohibition, for the victims of excessive police force are often low-paid or unemployed," Judge William Fletcher wrote. "Therefore, a prohibition against pre-death pain and suffering awards for a decedent's estate has the perverse effect of making it more economically advantageous for a defendant to kill rather than injure his victim."

The panel didn't fully reinstate the verdict, however. Fletcher noted that the district court could consider remittituron remand.

Negligent Coroner

One of the more ghastly details of the case involved the treatment of Chaudhry's body. An investigator from Coroner's office failed to locate the parents' correct address for weeks, which allowed Chaudhry's body to decompose to the point where traditional Islamic burial was no longer possible.

The problem, according to the panel, was that the investigator simply overlooked the parents' correct address after striking out with Chaudhry's current address. The Chaudhrys' address as listed as recent on the DMV records, and according to the panel, that is enough to send the question of whether the Coroner's office made a reasonable effort to locate the family.

Local Impact

The impact of this case is significant for California attorneys and law enforcement officers. While a lawsuit in state court will be limited to economic damages, as Fletcher noted, for low-income individuals, prison inmates, and many others, those damages are essentially nil.

Now, at least when cases are brought in federal court, California's cap on pain and suffering damages will not apply in §1983 cases, which greatly increases the financial exposure of the state and its law enforcement officers.

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