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I am now going to instruct you on damages. Just because I am instructing you on how to award damages does not mean that I have any opinion on whether or not [defendant] should be held liable.
If you find [defendant] liable, then you must consider the issue of compensatory damages. You must award [plaintiff] an amount that will fairly compensate [him/her] for any injury [he/she] actually sustained as a result of [defendant’s] conduct.
[Plaintiff] must show that the injury would not have occurred without [defendant’s] act [or omission]. [Plaintiff] must also show that [defendant’s] act [or omission] played a substantial part in bringing about the injury, and that the injury was either a direct result or a reasonably probable consequence of [defendant’s] act [or omission]. [There can be more than one cause of an injury. To find that [defendant’s] act [or omission] caused [plaintiff’s] injury, you need not find that [defendant’s] act [or omission] was the nearest cause, either in time or space. However, if [plaintiff’s] injury was caused by a later, independent event that intervened between [defendant’s] act [or omission] and [plaintiff’s] injury, [defendant] is not liable unless the injury was reasonably foreseeable by [defendant].]
Compensatory damages must not be based on speculation or sympathy. They must be based on the evidence presented at trial, and only on that evidence. Plaintiff has the burden of proving compensatory damages by a preponderance of the evidence.
[Plaintiff] claims the following items of damages [include any of the following – and any other items of damages – that are warranted by the evidence and permitted under the law governing the specific type of claim]:
• Physical harm to [plaintiff] during and after the events at issue, including ill health, physical pain, disability, disfigurement, or discomfort, and any such physical harm that [plaintiff] is reasonably certain to experience in the future. In assessing such harm, you should consider the nature and extent of the injury and whether the injury is temporary or permanent.
• Emotional and mental harm to [plaintiff] during and after the events at issue, including fear, humiliation, and mental anguish, and any such emotional and mental harm that [plaintiff] is reasonably certain to experience in the future.118
• The reasonable value of the medical [psychological, hospital, nursing, and similar] care and supplies that [plaintiff] reasonably needed and actually obtained, and the present value119 of such care and supplies that [plaintiff] is reasonably certain to need in the future.
• The [wages, salary, profits, reasonable value of the working time] that [plaintiff] has lost because of [his/her] inability [diminished ability] to work, and the present value of the [wages, etc.] that [plaintiff] is reasonably certain to lose in the future because of [his/her] inability [diminished ability] to work.
• The reasonable value of property damaged or destroyed.
• The reasonable value of legal services that [plaintiff] reasonably needed and actually obtained to defend and clear [him/her]self.120
• The reasonable value of each day of confinement after the time [plaintiff] would have been released if [defendant] had not taken the actions that [plaintiff] alleges.121
[Each plaintiff has a duty under the law to "mitigate" his or her damages – that means that the plaintiff must take advantage of any reasonable opportunity that may have existed under the circumstances to reduce or minimize the loss or damage caused by the defendant. It is [defendant's] burden to prove that [plaintiff] has failed to mitigate. So if [defendant] persuades you by a preponderance of the evidence that [plaintiff] failed to take advantage of an opportunity that was reasonably available to [him/her], then you must reduce the amount of [plaintiff’s] damages by the amount that could have been reasonably obtained if [he/she] had taken advantage of such an opportunity.]
[In assessing damages, you must not consider attorney fees or the costs of litigating this case. Attorney fees and costs, if relevant at all, are for the court and not the jury to determine. Therefore, attorney fees and costs should play no part in your calculation of any damages.]
COMMENT “[W]hen § 1983 plaintiffs seek damages for violations of constitutional rights, the level of damages is ordinarily determined according to principles derived from the common law of torts.” Memphis Community School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 306 (1986); see also Allah v. Al Hafeez, 226 F.3d 247, 250 (3d Cir. 2000) (“It is well settled that compensatory damages under § 1983 are governed by general tort law compensation theory.”).122
“[A] Section 1983 plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant's actions were the proximate cause of the violation of his federally protected right.” Rivas v. City of Passaic, 365 F.3d 181, 193 (3d Cir. 2004) (discussing defendants’ contentions that their conduct did not “proximately cause [the decedent’s] death”). The requirement is broadly equivalent to the tort law’s concept of proximate cause. See, e.g, Hedges v. Musco, 204 F.3d 109, 121 (3d Cir. 2000) (“It is axiomatic that ‘[a] § 1983 action, like its state tort analogs, employs the principle of proximate causation.’”) (quoting Townes v. City of New York, 176 F.3d 138, 146 (2d Cir. 1999)); Johnson v. Philadelphia, 837 F.3d 343, 352 (3d Cir. 2016) (holding that even if a police officer acted unreasonably in his initial approach to an obviously disturbed man, the causal chain between that initial approach and the officer’s killing of that man was broken by the man’s “sudden, unexpected attack that instantly forced the officer into a defensive fight for his life” and that included the man attempting to grab the officer’s gun out of its holster). Thus, Instruction 4.8.1 reflects general tort principles concerning causation and compensatory damages.
With respect to future injury, the Eighth Circuit’s model instructions require that the plaintiff prove the injury is “reasonably certain” to occur. See Eighth Circuit (Civil) Instruction 4.51. Although the Committee is not aware of Third Circuit caselaw directly addressing this issue, some precedents from other circuits do provide support for such a requirement. See Stengel v. Belcher, 522 F.2d 438, 445 (6th Cir. 1975) (“The Court properly instructed the jury that Stengel could recover damages only for injury suffered as a proximate result of the shooting, and for future damages which were reasonably certain to occur.”), cert. dismissed, 429 U.S. 118 (1976); Henderson v. Sheahan, 196 F.3d 839, 849 (7th Cir. 1999) (“Damages may not be awarded on the basis of mere conjecture or speculation; a plaintiff must prove that there is a reasonable certainty that the anticipated harm or condition will actually result in order to recover monetary compensation.”); cf. Slicker v. Jackson, 215 F.3d 1225, 1232 (11th Cir. 2000) (“[A]n award of nominal damages may be appropriate when the plaintiff's injuries have no monetary value or when they are not quantifiable with reasonable certainty.”). On the other hand, language in some other opinions suggest that something less than “reasonable certainty,” such as “reasonable likelihood,” might suffice. See, e.g., Ruiz v. Gonzalez Caraballo, 929 F.2d 31, 35 (1st Cir. 1991) (in assessing jury’s award of damages, taking into account evidence that the plaintiff’s “post traumatic stress syndrome would likely require extensive future medical treatment at appreciable cost”); Lawson v. Dallas County, 112 F. Supp. 2d 616, 636 (N.D. Tex. 2000) (plaintiff is “entitled to recover compensatory damages for the physical injury, pain and suffering, and mental anguish that he has suffered in the past – and is reasonably likely to suffer in the future – because of the defendants' wrongful conduct”), aff’d, 286 F.3d 257 (5th Cir. 2002).
The court should take care not to suggest that the jury could award damages based on “the abstract value of [the] constitutional right.” Stachura, 477 U.S. at 308. If a constitutional violation has not caused actual damages, nominal damages are the appropriate remedy. See id. at 308 n.11; infra Instruction 4.8.2. However, “compensatory damages may be awarded once the plaintiff shows actual injury despite the fact the monetary value of the injury is difficult to ascertain.” Brooks v. Andolina, 826 F.2d 1266, 1269 (3d Cir. 1987).
In a few types of cases, “presumed” damages may be available. “When a plaintiff seeks compensation for an injury that is likely to have occurred but difficult to establish... presumed damages may roughly approximate the harm that the plaintiff suffered and thereby compensate for harms that may be impossible to measure.” Stachura, 477 U.S. at 310-11. However, only a “narrow” range of claims will qualify for presumed damages. Spence v. Board of Educ. of Christina School Dist., 806 F.2d 1198, 1200 (3d Cir. 1986) (noting that “[t]he situations alluded to by the Memphis Court that would justify presumed damages [involved] defamation and the deprivation of the right to vote”).
If warranted by the evidence, the court can instruct the jury to distinguish between damages caused by legal conduct and damages caused by illegal conduct. Cf. Bennis v. Gable, 823 F.2d 723, 734 n.14 (3d Cir. 1987) (“Apportionment [of compensatory damages] is appropriate whenever ‘a factual basis can be found for some rough practical apportionment, which limits a defendant's liability to that part of the harm which that defendant's conduct has been cause in fact.’”) (quoting Prosser & Keeton, The Law of Torts, § 52, at 345 (5th ed. 1984)); Eazor Express, Inc. v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 520 F.2d 951, 967 (3d Cir.1975) (reviewing judgment entered after bench trial in case under Labor Management Relations Act and discussing apportionment of damages between legal and illegal conduct), overruled on other grounds by Carbon Fuel Co. v. United Mine Workers of America, 444 U.S. 212, 215 (1979).
The court should instruct the jury on the categories of compensatory damages that it should consider. Those categories will often parallel the categories of damages available under tort law. “[O]ver the centuries the common law of torts has developed a set of rules to implement the principle that a person should be compensated fairly for injuries caused by the violation of his legal rights. These rules, defining the elements of damages and the prerequisites for their recovery, provide the appropriate starting point for the inquiry under § 1983 as well.” Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 257 258 (1978).123 The Carey Court also noted, however, that “the rules governing compensation for injuries caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights should be tailored to the interests protected by the particular right in question.” Id. at 259.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”) provides that “[n]o Federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e). This provision “requir[es] a less than significant but more than de minimis physical injury as a predicate to allegations of emotional injury.” Mitchell v. Horn, 318 F.3d 523, 536 (3d Cir. 2003). However, this provision does not bar the award of nominal and punitive damages. See Allah v. Al Hafeez, 226 F.3d 247, 252 (3d Cir. 2000) (holding that “[n]either claims seeking nominal damages to vindicate constitutional rights nor claims seeking punitive damages to deter or punish egregious violations of constitutional rights are claims ‘for mental or emotional injury’” within the meaning of Section 1997e(e)).124 At least one district court has interpreted Section 1997e(e) to preclude the award of damages for emotional injury absent a finding of physical injury. See Tate v. Dragovich, 2003 WL 21978141, at *9 (E.D. Pa. 2003) (“Plaintiff was barred from recovering compensatory damages for his alleged emotional and psychological injuries by § 803(d)(e) of the PLRA, which requires that proof of physical injury precede any consideration of mental or emotional harm, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) (2003), and the jury was instructed as such.”). In a case within Section 1997e(e)’s ambit,125 the court should incorporate this consideration into the instructions.126
The Third Circuit has held that the district court has discretion to award prejudgment interest in Section 1983 cases. See Savarese v. Agriss, 883 F.2d 1194, 1207 (3d Cir. 1989). Accordingly, it appears that the question of prejudgment interest need not be submitted to the jury. Compare Cordero v. De Jesus Mendez, 922 F.2d 11, 13 (1st Cir. 1990) (“[I]n an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the issue of prejudgment interest is so closely allied with the issue of damages that federal law dictates that the jury should decide whether to assess it.”).
There appears to be no uniform practice regarding the use of an instruction that warns the jury against speculation on attorney fees and costs. In Collins v. Alco Parking Corp., 448 F.3d 652 (3d Cir. 2006), the district court gave the following instruction: “You are instructed that if plaintiff wins on his claim, he may be entitled to an award of attorney fees and costs over and above what you award as damages. It is my duty to decide whether to award attorney fees and costs, and if so, how much. Therefore, attorney fees and costs should play no part in your calculation of any damages.” Id. at 656-57. The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff had not properly objected to the instruction, and, reviewing for plain error, found none: “We need not and do not decide now whether a district court commits error by informing a jury about the availability of attorney fees in an ADEA case. Assuming arguendo that an error occurred, such error is not plain, for two reasons.” Id. at 657. First, “it is not ‘obvious’ or ‘plain’ that an instruction directing the jury not to consider attorney fees” is irrelevant or prejudicial; “it is at least arguable that a jury tasked with computing damages might, absent information that the Court has discretion to award attorney fees at a later stage, seek to compensate a sympathetic plaintiff for the expense of litigation.” Id. Second, it is implausible “that the jury, in order to eliminate the chance that Collins might be awarded attorney fees, took the disproportionate step of returning a verdict against him even though it believed he was the victim of age discrimination, notwithstanding the District Court's clear instructions to the contrary.” Id.; see also id. at 658 (distinguishing Fisher v. City of Memphis, 234 F.3d 312, 319 (6th Cir. 2000), and Brooks v. Cook, 938 F.2d 1048, 1051 (9th Cir. 1991)).
(Last Updated July 2019)
118 “[E]xpert medical evidence is not required to prove emotional distress in section 1983 cases.” Bolden v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Authority, 21 F.3d 29, 36 (3d Cir. 1994). However, the plaintiff must present competent evidence showing emotional distress. See Chainey v. Street, 523 F.3d 200, 216 (3d Cir. 2008). And in suits filed by prisoners, the court should ensure that the instructions on emotional and mental injury comply with 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e). See Comment.
119 The Court of Appeals has not discussed whether and how the jury should be instructed concerning the present value of future damages in Section 1983 cases. For instructions concerning present value (and a discussion of relevant issues), see Instruction 5.4.4 and its Comment.
120 This category of damages is not available for an unreasonable search and seizure. See Hector v. Watt, 235 F.3d 154, 157 (3d Cir. 2000), as amended (Jan. 26, 2001) (“Victims of unreasonable searches or seizures may recover damages directly related to the invasion of their privacy – including (where appropriate) damages for physical injury, property damage, injury to reputation, etc.; but such victims cannot be compensated for injuries that result from the discovery of incriminating evidence and consequent criminal prosecution.”) (quoting Townes v. City of New York, 176 F.3d 138, 148 (2d Cir.1999)).
121 See Sample v. Diecks, 885 F.2d 1099, 1112 (3d Cir. 1989) (upholding award of compensatory damages for “each day of confinement after the time Sample would have been released if Diecks had fulfilled his duty to Sample”).
122 The Third Circuit has noted the potential relevance of 42 U.S.C. § 1988 to the question of damages in Section 1983 cases. See Fontroy v. Owens, 150 F.3d 239, 242 (3d Cir. 1998). The Fontroy court relied on the approach set forth by the Supreme Court in a case addressing statute of limitations issues:
First, courts are to look to the laws of the United States "so far as such laws are suitable to carry [the civil and criminal civil rights statutes] into effect." If no suitable federal rule exists, courts undertake the second step by considering application of state "common law, as modified and changed by the constitution and statutes" of the forum State. A third step asserts the predominance of the federal interest: courts are to apply state law only if it is not "inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States." Fontroy, 150 F.3d at 242-43 (quoting Burnett v. Grattan, 468 U.S. 42, 47-48 (1984) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1988(a))); compare Seth F. Kreimer, The Source of Law in Civil Rights Actions: Some Old Light on Section 1988, 133 U. Pa. L. Rev. 601, 620 (1985) (arguing that Section 1988's reference to “common law” denotes “general common law,” not state common law).
As noted in the text, the Supreme Court has addressed a number of questions relating to the damages available in Section 1983 actions without making Section 1988 the focus of its analysis. See, e.g., Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 258 n.13 (1978) (applying the tort principle of compensation in a procedural due process case and stating in passing, in a footnote, that “42 U.S.C. § 1988 authorizes courts to look to the common law of the States where this is ‘necessary to furnish suitable remedies’ under § 1983”).
123 Compensatory damages in a Section 1983 case “may include not only out of pocket loss and other monetary harms, but also such injuries as ‘impairment of reputation ..., personal humiliation, and mental anguish and suffering.’” Memphis Community School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 307 (1986) (quoting Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 350 (1974)); see also Coleman v. Kaye, 87 F.3d 1491, 1507 (3d Cir. 1996) (in sex discrimination case, holding that plaintiff could recover damages under Section 1983 for “personal anguish she suffered as a result of being passed over for promotion”); Chainey v. Street, 523 F.3d 200, 216 (3d Cir. 2008) (discussing proof of damages for emotional distress).
124 One court has held that Section 1997e’s reference to “mental or emotional injury” does not encompass physical pain. See Perez v. Jackson, 2000 WL 893445, at *2 (E.D.Pa. June 30, 2000) (“Physical pain wantonly inflicted in a manner which violates the Eighth Amendment is a sufficient ‘physical injury’ to permit recovery under § 1983. Plaintiff also has not pled a claim for emotional or mental injury.”).
125 “[T]he applicability of the personal injury requirement of 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(e) turns on the plaintiff's status as a prisoner, not at the time of the incident, but when the lawsuit is filed.” Abdul Akbar v. McKelvie, 239 F.3d 307, 314 (3d Cir. 2001) (en banc).
126 It is not entirely clear that Section 1997e(e) precludes an award of damages for emotional injury absent a jury finding of physical injury; rather, the statute focuses upon the pretrial stage, by precluding the prisoner from bringing an action seeking damages for emotional injury absent a prior showing of physical injury. A narrow reading of the statute’s language arguably accords with the statutory purpose of decreasing the number of inmate suits and enabling the pretrial dismissal of such suits where only emotional injury is alleged: Under this view, if a plaintiff has survived summary judgment by pointing to evidence that would enable a reasonable jury to find physical injury, it would not offend the statute’s purpose to permit the jury to award damages for emotional distress even if the jury did not find physical injury. However, because it is far from clear that this view will ultimately prevail, the safer course may be to incorporate the physical injury requirement into the jury instructions.