Court of Appeals Affirms Award of Damages Against MPD Officers for Assault and Battery

On November 13, 2014, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided District of Columbia v. Bamidele, Nos. 12-CV-28 & 12-CV-33, slip op. (D.C. Nov. 13, 2014) in which it considered whether to affirm a judgment awarding compensatory and punitive damages against several officers of the Metropolitan Police Department (“MPD”) for assault and battery and against the District of Columbia for vicarious liability. Id. at 2-3.

The evidence presented in the proceedings below, when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, established the following: The officers — while “off-duty and not in uniform” — became involved in a confrontation with “a group of unidentified men” at a restaurant. Id. at 3-4. The officers had been drinking and “were impaired to varying degrees,” and one “was so intoxicated that he could ‘barely even stand,'” id. at 16-17; two of the officers “were carrying their service weapons, despite an MPD policy prohibiting the consumption of alcohol while carrying a weapon,” id. at 4; and the officers intended to take police action in confronting the unidentified men, id. at 19-20. The confrontation precipitated a separate, unprovoked attack by the officers against the plaintiffs (who were essentially innocent bystanders) resulting in the plaintiffs sustaining personal injuries. Id. at 5-6.

The plaintiffs brought a civil action against the officers for assault and battery and against the District for vicarious liability. Id. at 7. At trial, the jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages against the officers and found that “the officers acted in the scope of their employment” by the District. Id. The defendants appealed. Id. at 2. On appeal, the officers argued that the evidence was insufficient to support an award of compensatory or punitive damages, and the District argued, inter alia, that it was not vicariously liable. Id.

The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. Id. at 3, 24-25. It affirmed the award of compensatory damages against the officers because there was ample evidence “from which the jury could reasonably conclude that [the plaintiffs] suffered significant physical injuries, pain, and emotional distress.” Id. at 9-11. Likewise, it affirmed the award of punitive damages against the officers because the jury was presented with clear and convincing evidence that the officers were actuated by malice or its equivalent, including evidence of the “sheer violence” of their conduct, their consumption of “alcohol while armed in a crowded restaurant,” and their participation “in an uncontrolled brawl.” Id. at 11-17.

With respect to the judgment against the District based on vicarious liability, the Court of Appeals reversed. Id. at 17-24. It held that although the officers intended to take police action in confronting the unidentified men, there was no evidence that they had any such intent in attacking the plaintiffs and thus no basis for concluding that the District was vicariously liable for compensatory damages. Id. at 18-22. It further held that the award of punitive damages against the District was impermissible because “[t]here was no evidence offered at trial to support a finding that the District authorized, participated in, or subsequently ratified the individual officers’ tortious conduct,” and, “[w]ithout such evidence, the District could not be held liable for punitive damages.” Id. at 22-24.

One of the three judges who heard the appeal dissented from the determination that the District was not vicariously liable for compensatory damages. Id. at 25-34, 40. The dissenting judge essentially argued that the other two judges parsed the evidence too finely in distinguishing between how the officers intended to act toward the unidentified men as compared with the plaintiffs and overlooked evidence favorable to the plaintiffs. Id. The dissenting judge also rejected an alternative argument raised by the District; specifically, the judge rejected the District’s argument that the plaintiffs failed to provide adequate notice of their claims pursuant to D.C. Code § 12-309 (2001). Id. at 34-40.

For general background about tort claims for assault and battery in the District of Columbia, see Tort Claims and Defenses in the District of Columbia §§ 1-2 (2014).