A divided panel of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has decided a Wisconsin county can't be made to pay millions of dollars in damages to two female former jail inmates who were sexually assaulted by a jail correctional officer.
Judges William Bauer, Michael Brennan and Michael Schudder Jr. reaffirmed and denied the request for a new trial from jail guard Darryl Christensen. But in a 2-1 decision, the panel said the plaintiffs – two inmates at the Polk County Jail from 2011-2014 – failed to provide evidence to impose liability against the county.
The appellate court’s decision stems from a 2017 ruling in which both plaintiffs were awarded $3.75 million in punitive damages from Christensen and $2 million in compensatory damages from Polk County and the former officer. The two former inmates filed a complaint alleging Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violations in addition to a state law negligence claim against the county. Both defendants, Christensen and the county, moved for new trials. Polk County moved for a judgment as a matter of law following the jury’s verdict in 2017.
The plaintiffs originally sued the county and Christensen in separate actions, but the cases were later consolidated for the jury trial.
“To impose liability against the county for Christensen’s crimes, there must be evidence of an offending county policy, culpability and causation,” the appellate court judges wrote in a June 26 decision. “These are demanding standards. Christensen’s acts were reprehensible, but the evidence shows no connection between the assaults and any county policy.”
Christensen, an Amery native, was sentenced to 30 years in prison in February 2016 after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting five women while on duty at the jail. According to the StarTribune, the majority of the crimes for that complaint occurred in 2014, but some dated back to 2011.
Scudder dissented in part to the opinion from June 26.
“While the majority opinion marshals the best reasons for reversing the district court’s judgement against Polk County, I respectfully dissent from that portion of the opinion,” Scudder said. “When reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the jury’s verdict, I agree with District Judge Conley that a reasonable jury could have found that Polk County acted with deliberate indifference to the need for more training and monitoring to prevent the sexual assault of female inmates by male guards and in doing so cause the injuries suffered by the plaintiffs.”