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Briggs v. Marshall

August 15, 1996

CONNIE J. BRIGGS, MICHAEL BROWN, JR., MICHAEL J. CARNES, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,

v.

WILLIAM F. MARSHALL, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS AN EMPLOYEE OF THE TOWN OF FRENCH LICK, INDIANA, AND TOWN OF FRENCH LICK, INDIANA, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, New Albany Division. No. 90 C 63 Sarah Evans Barker, Chief Judge.

Before BAUER, CUDAHY, and FLAUM, Circuit Judges.

BAUER, Circuit Judge.

ARGUED APRIL 5, 1996

DECIDED AUGUST 15, 1996

The plaintiffs, Connie Jo Briggs, Michael Brown, Jr., Michael John Carnes, and Robert Patton, filed this 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 civil rights action against Orange County, Indiana, French Lick, Indiana, and a number of French Lick police officers. Their complaint sought compensatory and punitive damages against the individual officers for wrongful arrest and detention, use of excessive force, and various state law torts. The complaint also sought damages against the town and county for the allegedly unlawful actions of the officers.

By the time the case reached trial, the only remaining defendants were Officers William Marshall and Howard Rutherford, and French Lick. At the close of evidence, the district court entered judgment as a matter of law in favor of French Lick, and instructed the jury on the plaintiffs' unlawful arrest and detention, and excessive force claims against Marshall, and their failure to intervene claim against Rutherford. The court also instructed the jury on nominal, actual, and punitive damages. The jury returned a mixed verdict. The jury found for the plaintiffs on the excessive force claim against Marshall, but awarded each plaintiff only one dollar in nominal damages and no punitive damages. The jury found in favor of Marshall on the unlawful arrest and detention claim and in favor of Rutherford on the failure to intervene claim. The plaintiffs filed a motion for new trial and for attorney's fees. The district court denied the motion for new trial, and, although it found the plaintiffs "prevailing parties," denied attorney's fees.

The plaintiffs raise four arguments directed only at the excessive force claims against Marshall. The plaintiffs argue that the district court erred in: (1) instructing the jury on nominal damages; (2) denying the plaintiffs' motion for a new trial; (3) denying the plaintiffs attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. sec. 1988; and (4) refusing to admit into evidence certain medical records and a deposition transcript. We affirm.

BACKGROUND

Given the jury's mixed verdict and its decision to award only nominal damages, it is somewhat difficult to ascertain which facts the jury "found." As a result, we will use broad brush strokes to describe the facts of this case. On May 17, 1988, the French Lick Police Department received a report that vandals had broken into a change machine at the French Lick Springs Hotel. Officers Marshall and Rutherford stopped Carnes, Patton, and Brown (all of whom allegedly had been seen at the hotel earlier that day). What started as a routine stop quickly got out of hand, as Marshall used excessive force (including slapping and hair pulling) to subdue the plaintiffs. Eventually (approximately 10-15 minutes later), the officers released the plaintiffs.

Shortly thereafter, Marshall went to a local restaurant. Unfortunately, he ran into Carnes' mother, Connie Jo Briggs. Briggs confronted Marshall, and the situation quickly deteriorated into a physical altercation. Eventually, Marshall put a headlock on Briggs and led her out of the restaurant. *fn1 Briggs struggled all the way out.

All of the plaintiffs alleged that Marshall caused a variety of injuries, and all but Brown sought some sort of medical treatment. Briggs testified that as a result of her injuries, she had to stay home from work for a month. However, none of the plaintiffs presented testimony by medical doctors or other health care providers. In fact, only Briggs presented any evidence, other than the plaintiffs' own testimony, of the treatment she allegedly received as a result of her injuries, and Briggs' evidence was a chiropractor's bill. The chiropractor did not testify about the cause or extent of the injuries.

ANALYSIS

1. Jury Instruction

The plaintiffs' primary argument attacks the district court's decision to instruct the jury on nominal damages. Our review of jury instructions is limited. We will reverse "only if it appears that the jury was misled and its understanding of the issue was seriously affected to the prejudice of the complaining party." Wilson v. Williams, 83 F.3d 870, 874 (7th Cir. 1996) (citations omitted). In reviewing the pertinent instruction, we conduct a two-part test. First, we determine if the instruction is a sufficiently correct statement of the law. If not, we ...


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