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SMITH V. WADE, 461 U. S. 30 (1983)

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Smith v. Wade

No. 81-1196

Argued November 10, 1982

Decided April 20, 1983

461 U.S. 30


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 has rested decisions on related issues on the premise that punitive damages are available under § 1983. Pp. 461 U. S. 34-38.

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. Pp. 461 U. S. 38-51. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 461 U. S. 31

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. 461 U. S. 51-55.

663 F.2d 778, affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,and POWELL, J., joined, post, p. 461 U. S. 56. O'CONNOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 461 U. S. 92.

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