Damages for Civil Rights Claims in Federal Court: State Damages Caps do not Apply

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In light of the recent jail explosion, I have seen attorneys quoted in the local and national press that the inmate claims are limited by certain state caps on damages and that this amount could be $200,000 or $300,000. Unfortunately, these lawyers may not know that if there is proof that the jail was “deliberately indifferent” to the rights of the prisoners, then the claims may be brought under Federal Civil Rights laws, and these caps do not apply.

Many states have enacted caps or limitations on the amount that people in personal injury claims can recover when they sue the state. Under Florida’s Waiver of Sovereign Immunity statute these caps are $200,00 per person with a maximum cap for the entire claim of $300,000 States can limit the amount in a personal injury or wrongful death claim because of the old English Common Law rule of Sovereign Immunity which meant that a person could not sue the Crown. Because our legal system is based upon Common Law, states have enacted statutes that allow people to sue the government under certain restrictions which in many states include caps on damages.

However, in most Federal Civil Rights claims, sovereign immunity does not apply, so the caps enacted by the states do not apply. If a claim is brought under 42 U.S. Code Section 1983, then a plaintiff does not have to comply with state sovereign immunity laws regardless of whether the claim is brought in state or federal court. In 1990 in Howlett By and Through Howlett v. Rose the United States Supreme Court held unanimously that Florida, and all states,  cannot apply sovereign immunity rules to bar Section 1983 claims against local government in state courts.

If you have a lawsuit against the government, it is important that you hire an attorney with experience suing the government who knows the law in this area. As you interview lawyers, ask them if they have experience suing the government and if they have ever tried a civil rights law suit. Experience in this area is crucial to determine if statutory caps apply. If a lawyer does not know that the caps do not apply, then they likely cannot recover the full amount their client deserves in their personal injury, wrongful death, or civil rights claim against the government. Our firm has experience in these areas, if you have questions, please give us a call.

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