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Eleventh Circuit reverses $23 million civil rights/excessive force verdict and remands for new trial because of trial court's erroneous jury instruction regarding qualified immunity defense

On January 10, 2018, in Simmons v. Stephens, No. 16-10876, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a $23 million jury verdict for the plaintiff in an excessive force civil rights lawsuit arising from a traffic stop shooting by a deputy sheriff that had left the plaintiff a quadriplegic. On appeal, the defendant had challenged the post-trial denial of his motion for a new trial based on what he alleged was an erroneous jury instruction pertaining to his claimed defense of qualified immunity. The defendant had unsuccessfully moved for summary judgment prior to trial on this issue. Rather than providing the jury special jury interrogatories on the contested factual issues relating to this defense and reserving to the court the determination of the legal issues, the trial court had issued a jury instruction which effectively ceded both the factual and legal determinations to the jury. The Eleventh Circuit opined that the question of what circumstances existed at the time of the encounter is a question of fact for the jury—but the question of whether the officer’s perceptions and attendant actions were objectively reasonable under those circumstances is a question of law for the court, citing in support Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 206 (2001), and Harris v. Coweta Cty., 21 F.3d 388, 390 (11th Cir. 1994). The Eleventh Circuit accordingly reversed and remanded for a new trial.

The Eleventh Circuit also considered the defendant’s claim that the district court had erroneously granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant’s superior, the county Sheriff, who the defendant claimed was liable because he had effectively instituted a policy of excessive force within the Sheriff’s Department. Under Monell v. Department of Social Serv., 436 U.S. 658 (1978), a municipal government can be held liable under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 if a plaintiff can demonstrate that a deprivation of a federal right occurred as a result of a policy or custom of the local government's legislative body or of those local officials whose acts may fairly be said to be those of the municipality. This showing requires a plaintiff to demonstrate: “(1) that his constitutional rights were violated; (2) that the municipality had a custom or policy that constituted deliberate indifference to that constitutional right; and (3) that the policy or custom caused the violation.” McDowell v. Brown, 392 F.3d 1283, 1289 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388, 109 S. Ct. 1197, 1204 (1989)). The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the trial court had properly granted the Sheriff’s summary judgment motion because of lack of evidence regarding custom and causation. However, the three-judge Circuit panel was split on this issue, with Judge Wilson issuing a lengthy dissenting opinion.