|prev item||PJI home||next item|
If you return a verdict for [plaintiff], but [plaintiff] has failed to prove compensatory damages, then you must award nominal damages of $ 1.00.
A person whose federal rights were violated is entitled to a recognition of that violation, even if [he/she] suffered no actual injury. Nominal damages (of $1.00) are designed to acknowledge the deprivation of a federal right, even where no actual injury occurred.
However, if you find actual injury, you must award compensatory damages (as I instructed you), rather than nominal damages.
COMMENT The Supreme Court has explained that “[b]y making the deprivation of... rights actionable for nominal damages without proof of actual injury, the law recognizes the importance to organized society that those rights be scrupulously observed.” Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 266 (1978). Carey involved a procedural due process claim, but the Court indicated that the rationale for nominal damages extended to other types of Section 1983 claims as well:
The Court observed, with apparent approval, that “[a] number of lower federal courts have approved the award of nominal damages under § 1983 where deprivations of constitutional rights are not shown to have caused actual injury.” See id. n.24 (citing cases involving Section 1983 claims for various constitutional violations); see also Memphis Community School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 308 n.11 (1986) (explaining that “nominal damages... are the appropriate means of ‘vindicating’ rights whose deprivation has not caused actual, provable injury”); Allah v. Al Hafeez, 226 F.3d 247, 252 (3d Cir. 2000) (noting “the Supreme Court's clear directive that nominal damages are available for the vindication of a constitutional right absent any proof of actual injury”); Atkinson v. Taylor, 316 F.3d 257, 265 n.6 (3d Cir. 2003) (“[E]ven if appellee is unable to establish a right to compensatory damages, he may be entitled to nominal damages.”); B.S. v. Somerset County, 704 F.3d 250, 273 (3d Cir. 2013) (“If nothing else, the violations of Mother’s right to procedural due process would be a basis for awarding nominal damages.”).
An instruction on nominal damages is proper when the plaintiff has failed to present evidence of actual injury. However, when the plaintiff has presented evidence of actual injury and that evidence is undisputed,127 it is error to instruct the jury on nominal damages, at least if the nominal damages instruction is emphasized to the exclusion of appropriate instructions on compensatory damages.128 In Pryer v. C.O. 3 Slavic, the district court granted a new trial, based partly on the ground that because the plaintiff had presented “undisputed proof of actual injury, an instruction on nominal damages was inappropriate.” Pryer v. C.O. 3 Slavic, 251 F.3d 448, 452 (3d Cir. 2001). In upholding the grant of a new trial, the Court of Appeals noted that “nominal damages may only be awarded in the absence of proof of actual injury.” See id. at 453. The court observed that the district court had “recognized that he had erroneously instructed the jury on nominal damages and failed to inform it of the availability of compensatory damages for pain and suffering.” Id. Accordingly, the court held that “[t]he court's error in failing to instruct as to the availability of damages for such intangible harms, coupled with its emphasis on nominal damages, rendered the totality of the instructions confusing and misleading.” Id. at 454.
(Last Updated July 2019)
127 Cf. Slicker v. Jackson, 215 F.3d 1225, 1232 (11th Cir. 2000) (“[N]ominal damages may be appropriate where a jury reasonably concludes that the plaintiff's evidence of injury is not credible.”).
128 Cf. Brooks v. Andolina, 826 F.2d 1266, 1269-70 (3d Cir. 1987) (in case tried without a jury, holding that it was error to award only nominal damages because the plaintiff “demonstrated that he suffered actual injury” by testifying “that while in punitive segregation he lost his regular visiting and phone call privileges, his rights to recreation and to use the law library, and his wages from his job”).