461 U.S. 30 (1983), 81-1196, Smith v. Wade

Docket Nº:No. 81-1196.
Citation:461 U.S. 30, 103 S.Ct. 1625, 75 L.Ed.2d 632
Party Name:William H. SMITH, Petitioner, v. Daniel R. WADE.
Case Date:April 20, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court

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461 U.S. 30 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 1625, 75 L.Ed.2d 632

William H. SMITH, Petitioner,


Daniel R. WADE.

No. 81-1196.

United States Supreme Court.

April 20, 1983

Argued Nov. 10, 1982.

[103 S.Ct. 1626] Syllabus[*]


Respondent, while an inmate in a Missouri reformatory for youthful first offenders, was harassed, beaten, and sexually assaulted by his cellmates. He brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Federal District Court against petitioner, a guard at the reformatory, and others, alleging that his Eighth Amendment rights had been violated. Because of petitioner's qualified immunity, as a prison guard, from § 1983 liability, the trial judge instructed the jury that respondent could recover only if petitioner was guilty of "gross negligence" or "egregious failure to protect" respondent. The judge also charged the jury that it could award punitive damages in addition to actual damages if petitioner's conduct was shown to be "a reckless or callous disregard of, or indifference to, the rights or safety of others." The District Court entered judgment on a verdict finding petitioner liable and awarding both compensatory and punitive damages. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


1. Punitive damages are available in a proper case under § 1983. While there is little in the legislative history of § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (from which § 1983 is derived) concerning the damages recoverable for the tort liability created by the statute, the availability of punitive damages was accepted as settled law by nearly all state and federal courts at the time of enactment. Moreover, this Court [103 S.Ct. 1627] has rested decisions on related issues on the premise that punitive damages are available under § 1983. Pp. 1628-1631.

2. A jury may be permitted to assess punitive damages in a § 1983 action when the defendant's conduct involves reckless or callous indifference to the plaintiff's federally protected rights, as well as when it is motivated by evil motive or intent. The common law, both in 1871 and now, allows recovery of punitive damages in tort cases not only for actual malicious intent, but also for reckless indifference to the rights of others. Neither the policies nor the purposes of § 1983 require a departure from the common-law rule. Petitioner's contention that an actual-intent standard is preferable to a recklessness standard because it is less vague, and would more readily serve the purpose of deterrence of future egregious conduct, is unpersuasive. Cf. Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S.Ct. 2997, 41 L.Ed.2d 789. Pp. 1631-1637.

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3. The threshold standard for allowing punitive damages for reckless or callous indifference applies even in a case, such as here, where the underlying standard of liability for compensatory damages is also one of recklessness. There is no merit to petitioner's contention that actual malicious intent should be the standard for punitive damages because the deterrent purposes of such damages would be served only if the threshold for those damages is higher in every case than the underlying standard for liability in the first instance. The common-law rule is otherwise, and there is no reason to depart from the common-law rule in the context of § 1983. Pp. 1637-1640.

663 F.2d 778 (8th Cir.1981), affirmed.


Robert Presson argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief wereJohn Ashcroft, Assistant Attorney General of Missouri, and Paul Robert Otto, Assistant Attorney General.

Bradley H. Lockenvitz argued the cause and filed a brief for respondent.

Robert Presson, Asst. Atty. Gen., Jefferson City, Mo., for petitioner.

Bradley H. Lockenvitz, Linn, Mo., for respondent.


Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in this case, 456 U.S. 924, 102 S.Ct. 1968, 72 L.Ed.2d 439 (1982), to decide whether the District Court for the Western District of Missouri applied the correct legal standard in instructing the jury that it might award punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1976 ed., Supp. IV). 1 The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit sustained the award of punitive damages. Wade v. Haynes, 663 F.2d 778 (1981). We affirm.

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The petitioner, William H. Smith, is a guard at Algoa Reformatory, a unit of the Missouri Division of Corrections for youthful first offenders. The respondent, Daniel R. Wade, was assigned to Algoa as an inmate in 1976. In the summer of 1976 Wade voluntarily checked into Algoa's protective custody unit. Because of disciplinary violations during his stay in protective custody, Wade was given a short term in punitive segregation and then transferred to administrative segregation. On the evening of Wade's first day in administrative segregation, he was placed in a cell with another inmate. Later, when Smith came on duty in Wade's dormitory, he placed a third inmate in Wade's cell. According to Wade's testimony, his cellmates harassed, beat, and sexually assaulted him.

Wade brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Smith and four other guards and correctional officials, alleging that his Eighth Amendment rights had [103 S.Ct. 1628] been violated. At trial his evidence showed that he had placed himself in protective custody because of prior incidents of violence against him by other inmates. The third prisoner whom Smith added to the cell had been placed in administrative segregation for fighting. Smith had made no effort to find out whether another cell was available; in fact there was another cell in the same dormitory with only one occupant. Further, only a few weeks earlier, another inmate had been beaten to death in the same dormitory during the same shift, while Smith had been on duty. Wade asserted that Smith and the other defendants knew or should have known that an assault against him was likely under the circumstances.

During trial, the district judge entered a directed verdict for two of the defendants. He instructed the jury that Wade could make out an Eighth Amendment violation only by showing "physical abuse of such base, inhumane and barbaric proportions as to shock the sensibilities." Tr. 639. Further, because of Smith's qualified immunity as a prison

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guard, see Procunier v. Navarette, 434 U.S. 555, 98 S.Ct. 855, 55 L.Ed.2d 24 (1978), the judge instructed the jury that Wade could recover only if the defendants were guilty of "gross negligence" (defined as "a callous indifference or a thoughtless disregard for the consequences of one's act or failure to act") or "egregious failure to protect" Wade (defined as "a flagrant or remarkably bad failure to protect"). Tr. 641-642. He reiterated that Wade could not recover on a showing of simple negligence. Tr. 644.

The district judge also charged the jury that it could award punitive damages on a proper showing:

"In addition to actual damages, the law permits the jury, under certain circumstances, to award the injured person punitive and exemplary damages, in order to punish the wrongdoer for some extraordinary misconduct, and to serve as an example or warning to others not to engage in such conduct.

"If you find the issues in favor of the plaintiff, and if the conduct of one or more of the defendants is shown to be a reckless or callous disregard of, or indifference to, the rights or safety of others, then you may assess punitive or exemplary damages in addition to any award of actual damages.

"... The amount of punitive or exemplary damages assessed against any defendant may be such sum as you believe will serve to punish that defendant and to deter him and others from like conduct." Tr. 643 (emphasis added).

The jury returned verdicts for two of the three remaining defendants. It found Smith liable, however, and awarded $25,000 in compensatory damages and $5,000 in punitive damages. The District Court entered judgment on the verdict, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Wade v. Haynes, 663 F.2d 778 (CA8 1981).

In this Court, Smith attacks only the award of punitive damages. He does not challenge the correctness of the instructions

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on liability or qualified immunity, nor does he question the adequacy of the evidence to support the verdict of liability for compensatory damages.


Section 1983 is derived from § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 17 Stat. 13. It was intended to create "a species of tort liability" in favor of persons deprived of federally secured rights. Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 253, 98 S.Ct. 1042, 1047, 55 L.Ed.2d 252 (1978); Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 417, 96 S.Ct. 984, 988, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976). We noted in Carey that there was little in the section's legislative history concerning the damages recoverable for this tort liability, 435 U.S., at 255, 98 S.Ct., at 1048. In the absence of more specific guidance, we looked first to the common law of torts (both modern and as of 1871), with such modification or adaptation as might be necessary to carry out the purpose and policy of the statute. 435 U.S., at 253-264, 98 S.Ct., at 1046-52. We have done the same in other contexts [103 S.Ct. 1629] arising under § 1983, especially the recurring problem of common-law immunities.2

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Smith correctly concedes that "punitive damages are available in a 'proper' § 1983 action ...." Carlson v. Green, 446 U.S. 14, 22, 100 S.Ct. 1468, 1473, 64 L.Ed.2d 15 (1980); Brief for Petitioner 8. Although there was debate about the theoretical correctness of the punitive damages doctrine in the latter part of the last century, the doctrine was accepted as settled law by nearly all state and federal courts, including this Court.3 It was likewise generally...

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