Eighth Circuit Talks About Excessive Damages in Prison Case

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on June 19, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When does the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals review and reverse a damages award for being excessive?

Not that often.

A former Arkansas prisoner may keep his $813,000 damages award, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held this week.

The three judge panel held in favor of one time prisoner Jose Luis Gonzalez, who has since been repatriated to his home country of Mexico, reports the Associated Press. Gonzalez brought suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act against the Federal Correctional Institution in Forrest City, Arkansas.

Gonzalez injured himself during a prison-sanctioned softball game in 2004. At that time, he asked for treatment over and over again, only to be turned down. The prison officials provided him with painkillers instead.

One month later, he was examined by the medical staff at the prison, only to learn that he had a fracture and needed surgery.

The District Court decided, en banc, that the prison was liable for damages. On appeal, the government argued that the damages award was excessive. They didn't raise any other issues regarding the liability.

The Eighth Circuit will generally only review damage awards when there is "plain injustice" or a "monstrous" or "shocking" result. (This standard comes from the Eighth Circuit's 1980 Overton v. U.S.decision.)

The government attempted to compare the damages award in this case to other cases, in an effort to show that the $813,000 was unfair. But, as the appeals court pointed out, non-economic damages are not as easily comparable to other cases.

While the award may have been "generous" in this case, it wasn't outrageous enough to ask the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to intervene.

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