Smith v. Wade

LOCATION:U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 81-1196
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 461 US 30 (1983)
ARGUED: Nov 10, 1982
DECIDED: Apr 20, 1983

Bradley H. Lockenvitz – on behalf of the Respondent
Robert L. Presson – on behalf of the Petitioner
Robert Presson – for petitioner

Facts of the case


Media for Smith v. Wade

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – November 10, 1982 in Smith v. Wade

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 20, 1983 in Smith v. Wade

Warren E. Burger:

The judgment and opinion of the Court in Smith against Wade will be announced by Justice Brennan.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

This case is here on certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

The question presented is whether a plaintiff in a suit brought under 42 United States Code Section 1983 may recover punitive damages as well as compensatory damages.

The respondent, while an inmate in a Missouri reformatory for youthful first offenders, was harassed, beaten, and sexually assaulted by his cellmates.

And he brought suit under Section 1983 in Federal District Court against the petitioner, a guard at the reformatory, and other officers, alleging that they had violated his Eighth Amendment rights.

And the trial judge, charged the jury that it could award punitive damages in addition to actual damages if the petitioner’s conduct was shown to be a reckless or callous disregard of, or indifference to, the rights or safety of others.

And the District Court entered judgment on a verdict brought in by the jury finding the petitioner liable and awarding both compensatory and punitive damages.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

And we in turn, affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

We hold that punitive damages are available in a proper case under Section 1983.

While there is little in the legislative history of Section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 from which Section 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 has rested decisions on related issues on the premise that punitive damages are available under Section 1983.

The next question however is when the jury may award punitive damages.

And we hold with the lower courts that 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 that conduct is motivated by evil motive or intent.

The common law, both in 1871 and today, allows recovery of punitive damages in tort cases not only for actual malicious intent, but for reckless also — for reckless indifference to the rights of others.

And neither the policies nor the purposes of Section 1983 require a departure from the common-law rule.

The petitioner’s contention that an actual-intent standard is preferable is just not that persuasive.

Justice Rehnquist has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice and Justice Powell have joined.

And Justice O’Connor has also filed a dissenting opinion.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Justice Brennan.