Uncertain No More: California’s limitation on survivor damages for pain and suffering held inapplicable to section 1983 claims where the constitutional violation causes death

Uncertain No More: California’s limitation on survivor damages for pain and suffering held inapplicable to section 1983 claims where the constitutional violation causes death

California law does not allow survivors to recover damages for a decedent’s pain and suffering. (Code Civ. Proc., § 337.34.) Until just recently, how and whether this restriction on damages applied to civil rights claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 was uncertain. For cases venued in the Eastern District, plaintiffs were likely out of luck, with decisions from that court concluding that CCP § 377.34 precluded the recovery of such damages. Other district courts held California’s limitation on survivor damages to be inconsistent with the policies behind § 1983, and therefore inapplicable to such claims.

The days of uncertainty for section 1983 litigants in California are over. Chaudhry v. City of Los Angeles, 751 F.3d 1096 (9th Cir. 2014), decided in May of this year, finally addressed this issue head-on. The court held that California’s limitation on survivor damages for the pain and suffering of a decedent is inconsistent with section 1983 where the alleged constitutional violation has caused the decedent’s death, and is therefore inapplicable to such claims.

Chaudhry came to the Court out of the Central District. It involved two police officers who shot and killed Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, a young Muslim man whom they found sleeping in front of a building and suspected might be a drug dealer. The officers testified that in the process of checking his identification, Chaudhry lunged at them with a knife, which precipitated his death. The Coroner took possession of Chaudhry’s body, but the search for his next-of-kin took 21 days, which prevented Chaudhry’s family from providing him with a proper Islamic burial. Litigation against various County and City defendants ensued. A section 1983 claim for excessive force under the Fourth Amendment went to the jury (along with state law claims for assault and battery, and wrongful death), which found in favor of plaintiffs and awarded $700,000 on the wrongful death claim, and $1 million to Chaudhry’s estate for his pain and suffering on the excessive force claim. The district court granted defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law with respect to the $1 million award, holding pre-death pain and suffering damages are unavailable in survivor actions in California, and that this limitation applied to section 1983 claims. The Ninth Circuit reversed.

Section 1983 does not itself provide remedies to redress violations of its provisions, but under section 1988, district courts are to vindicate civil rights violations “in conformity with the laws of the United States, so far as such laws are suitable to carry the same into effect….” Where federal law fails to provide a suitable remedy, then federal common law, as modified by the laws of the State wherein the district court is located governs “so far as the same is not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States….” (42 U.S.C. § 1988, emphasis added.)

The U.S. Supreme Court has identified the purposes of section 1983 as twofold: (1) to prevent or deter abuses of power by state actors, and (2) to afford compensation for injuries caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights. Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584, 591 (1978). Any state law limitations on damages may not be inconsistent with these goals.

Analyzing California’s survivor statute under this standard, the court in Chaudhry found it to be inconsistent with the deterrence goal of section 1983. The court observed that the practical impact of section 377.34 is that it often reduces, and may even eliminate, compensatory damages for survivors of those killed due to section 1983 violations. The court went so far as to state that “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.” Chaudhry at p. 1104.

Some may view the Chaudhry court’s analysis as a particularly cynical one, as it seems unlikely a defendant’s decision to act in a manner that could result in a death will be impacted by the knowledge that pain and suffering damages are unavailable. Moreover, Chaudhry does not address the fact that other deterrents to such conduct are available under state law, including punitive damages and, of course, criminal prosecution.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet addressed the issue of whether survivor damages may be limited in section 1983 cases where the constitutional violation is the cause of death, having expressly reserved that issue for another day. (See Roberston v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584 (1978).  It may be some time before it does, as the Ninth Circuit has now fallen in line with its sister courts in the 10th, 7th, and 2d Circuits, all of which have held similar state laws to be inapplicable in section 1983 cases where the victim’s death is caused by the violation of federal law.

By: Suzanne M. Nicholson

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