A Section 1983 Primer (12B): Survival and Wrongful Death–What Happens When a Section 1983 Plaintiff Dies or Has Been Killed
The immediately preceding post addressed the section 1988 background of survival and wrongful death claims based on section 1983. It included a discussion of Robertson v. Wegmann, the leading Supreme Court decision dealing with survival of section 1983 claims.
This follow-up post primarily deals with wrongful death.
While both state survival statutes and state wrongful death statutes reverse contrary common law rules, their purposes are different. Survival statutes allow the cause of action to survive regardless of the death of the plaintiff (or defendant). Wrongful death statutes, by contrast, provide for causes of action to arise in and for the benefit of certain designated persons in order to compensate them for pecuniary losses resulting from a decedent’s death. Furthermore, for wrongful death actions the defendant’s conduct must necessarily be the cause of death; this is not required for survival.
The Leading Case of Brazier v. Cherry, 293 F.2d 401 (5th Cir. 1961)
In a leading decision on survival and wrongful death, the Fifth Circuit, in Brazier v. Cherry, drew no distinction for section 1983 and section 1988 purposes between the applicability of Georgia’s survival statute and its wrongful death statute. The case concerned allegations that police brutality had caused decedent’s beating and death. In concluding that section 1988 required the application of Georgia law in favor of the plaintiff, who was both the surviving widow and the administratrix of the decedent’s estate, the court treated survival and wrongful death concepts alike. Focusing on the “suitable remedies” language of section 1988, after dealing earlier with the “party injured” language of section 1983, the Fifth Circuit stated:
The term “suitable remedies” … comprehends those facilities available in local state law but unavailable in federal legislation, which will permit the full effectual enforcement of the policy sought to be achieved by the statutes. And in a very real sense the utilization of local death and survival statutes does not do more than create an effective remedy. … To make the policy of the Civil Rights Statutes fully effectual, regard has to be taken of both classes of victims.
Thus far, the Supreme Court has not addressed the issue of wrongful death and section 1983. As noted in the preceding post, it simply commented in Robertson, a survival case, that abatement of a section 1983 cause of action where the defendant’s conduct caused the plaintiff’s death was a different issue from that in case before it where death was not so caused. Still, as a matter of section 1983 policy, Brazier‘s approach to the use of wrongful death statutes seems sound and has been generally followed in the circuits. Consider: if a wrongful death statute could not be used for section 1983 actions, it would follow that where a defendant’s unconstitutional conduct immediately caused the death of the decedent, the typical survival statute would also not be applicable. The absurd result would be no vindication at all of the section 1983 claim. Thus, the Fifth Circuit appropriately observed in Brazier:
“[I]t defies history to conclude that Congress purposely meant to assure to the living freedom from such unconstitutional deprivations, but that, with like precision, it meant to withdraw the protection of civil rights statutes against the peril of death.”
Significantly, Brazier‘s reasoning can apply to the use of state survival law as well. Indeed, because the claim in such cases is for the decedent’s loss of his or her life and related damages,the “fit” between survival law and section 1983 may even be better than that between wrongful death law and section 1983. That may be why some circuit court decisions tend in fact to use state survival law in section 1983 cases and confront the “inconsistency” issue–addressed below–regarding damages limitations head on.
The general rule is that state wrongful death statutes can be used to vindicate a decedent’s constitutional deprivations caused by the conduct of section 1983 defendants that caused his or her death.
In addition–and this is important–to the extent that state wrongful death statutes (and survival statutes) limit the recovery of compensatory and punitive damages, those limitations have been held to be inconsistent with the policies underlying section 1983 and thus found inapplicable to section 1983 wrongful death claims. See, e.g., Bell v. City of Milwaukee, 746 F.2d 1205 (7th Cir. 1984), overruled in part on other grounds, Russ v. Watts, 414 F.3d 783 (7th Cir. 2005), and Berry v. City of Muskogee, 900 F.2d 1489 (10th Cir. 1990). Both of these cases soundly hold that federal damages rules for compensatory and punitive damages govern for both survival and wrongful death claims brought under section 1983.
I discuss these and other cases in section 4:69 of Nahmod, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2016)(West).
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A Section 1983 Primer (12A): Survival and Wrongful Death–What Happens When a Plaintiff Dies or Has Been Killed?
There are times when a potential section 1983 plaintiff dies for reasons unrelated to his or her claim . There are other times when a potential section 1983 plaintiff may have a claim against the person or entity responsible for his or her death. It is crucial to distinguish between the two situations.
In the first, the question is whether the section 1983 claim survives the decedent‘s death so that the decedent’s legal representative can proceed with the section 1983 lawsuit. This raises a survival issue. In the second situation, the question is whether the decedent’s legal representative can bring a section 1983 claim for the decedent’s death. This raises a wrongful death issue.
Interestingly, the answers to these questions are based, as a matter of federal law, on the survival and wrongful death law of the forum state.
The Relevance of 42 U.S.C. sec. 1988 and the Silence of Federal Law on Survival and Wrongful Death
Section 1988 provides in relevant part that the jurisdiction of federal district courts must be exercised in conformity with federal law “so far as such laws are suitable to carry the same into effect.” However, section 1988 goes on to say that when federal law is deficient in the provision of suitable remedies, state statutory or common law applies, unless it is inconsistent with the Constitution or federal law, in which case that state statutory or common law is not to be applied.
Because federal law is silent on the questions of survival and wrongful death, and therefore “deficient,” section 1988 requires that the survival and wrongful death law of the forum state must be applied unless it is “inconsistent” with the Constitution or federal law.
Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584 (1978): Survival of Section 1983 Claims
In its only section 1983 survival case, Robertson v. Wegmann, the Supreme Court dealt with the meaning of section 1988’s “inconsistent” language in the course of explaining how survival applies to section 1983 claims.
In Robertson, plaintiff Clay Shaw sued district attorney Jim Garrison and others under section 1983 for their alleged bad faith prosecution attempts against him in connection with the assassination of President Kennedy. Shaw obtained an injunction but, before a trial on damages could be held, he died. The executor of Shaw’s estate was then substituted as plaintiff, prompting defendants’ motion to dismiss on the ground that the section 1983 action had abated. Under Louisiana law, Shaw’s action only survived in favor of certain close relatives, none of whom was alive when Shaw died. The district court refused to apply state law because it was thought to be inconsistent with federal law. Instead, the court created “a federal common law of survival in civil rights actions in favor of the personal representative of the deceased.” The Fifth Circuit affirmed, emphasizing the inconsistency between Louisiana law and the broad remedial policies of section 1983, as well as the need for uniformity in civil rights actions.
However, the Supreme Court reversed. Applying section 1988, it found that Louisiana survival law generally was both reasonable and not inconsistent with the compensation and deterrent purposes of section 1983, despite the fact that the section 1983 action abated in this unusual case. It said:
A state statute cannot be considered “inconsistent” with federal law merely because the statute causes the plaintiff to lose the litigation. . . . § 1988 quite clearly instructs us to refer to state statutes; it does not say that state law is to be accepted or rejected based solely on which side is advantaged thereby.
The Court added that its decision was to be read narrowly because Louisiana law generally was not “inhospitable” to survival of § 1983 actions and the particular result here had “no independent adverse effect on the policies underlying § 1983.” Significantly, it also observed that the case before it was far different from one in which the unconstitutional conduct actually caused the death; that is, this was not a wrongful death action.
Robertson indicates that state survival law will almost always govern the survival of section 1983 actions except in extreme situations as where, for example, state law significantly discriminates against those types of actions, including section 1983 actions, that do not survive.
The general rule, then, is that section 1983 damages actions that are intended to redress the constitutional deprivations of the decedent while he or she was alive survive the death of the plaintiff if such survival would be the result under applicable state law.
I collect circuit court decisions dealing with survival in section 4:66 of CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (4th ed. 2016; West).
Next Post: Section 1983 Wrongful Death Claims
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I’ve been out of town for over a month but expect to be back next week and to resume blogging on section 1983, constitutional law and other good stuff.
One of my most popular posts is Know Your Constitution (5): Free Speech and Hate Speech, which was published on December 4, 2013, and can be found here: https://nahmodlaw.com/2013/12/04/know-your-constitution-5-free-speech-and-hate-speech/
More recently, I was invited to lecture on this topic to a general audience at Moriah Congregation in Deerfield, IL, on November 30, 2016. The attentive and engaged audience consisted of adults attending a continuing series of lectures on Henry Ford and anti-Semitism, with my lecture coming near the end of the series.
Following a gracious introduction by Bruce Ogron, an attorney and graduate of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, I spoke for 45 minutes and then answered some very good questions for another 15 minutes. I enjoyed the experience immensely.
I spoke first about common erroneous assumptions about the Supreme Court. I then moved into the mainstream theories or purposes of free speech, followed by three important considerations in free speech case law, and I concluded with a discussion of hate speech.
I am very pleased to offer this audio of my lecture.
On September 28, 2016, I audio-taped a 55-minute makeup class on Congressional abrogation of 11th Amendment immunity, including Kimel, Garrett and Hibbs. The class concluded with an important treaty power case, Missouri v. Holland.
I hope you find it of interest.
Here it is:
listen online (no video content):
- or download file here
I blogged on February 19, 2015, about the Fourteenth Amendment’s state action requirement. Much earlier, on November 29, 2009, I blogged about the seminal section 1983 decision in Monroe v. Pape and its ruling that, where state action is present, section 1983’s color of law requirement is thereby met. Readers should check these posts for important background.
The following cases, from the First, Third and Ninth Circuits, address state action and color of law. Keep in mind that there are several state action tests, including nexus, symbiotic relationship, public/state function and entwinement, any one of which may lead to a finding of state action.
The First Circuit’s Decision in Jarvis v. Village Gun Shop
In Jarvis v. Village Gun Shop, Inc., 805 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2015), gun owners and a nonprofit corporation sued a gun shop as operator of a bonded warehouse alleging violations of due process in connection with the auctioning off of their guns—confiscated by police and transferred to the gun shop– after the owners failed to pay gun shop storage fees. The First Circuit held that the gun shop was not a state actor:
(1) There was no real joint action or interdependence between the activities of the police and the gun shop; it was not sufficient that a state statute authorized police to transfer possession of confiscated firearms to licensed storage facilities.
(2) The public function test was also not satisfied: a licensed storage facility such as the gun shop did not perform a traditionally exclusive government function.
(3) The state compulsion test was similarly not satisfied: nothing in the state statutory scheme required the gun shop, or any licensed private storage company, to provide its services to the police.
The Third Circuit’s Decision in P.R.B.A. Corp. v. HMS Host Toll Roads, Inc.
In P.R.B.A. Corp. v. HMS Host Toll Roads, Inc., 808 F.3d 221, 225 (3rd Cir. 2015), a “gentlemen’s club” operator sued the private company that ran service plazas on state highway, alleging First and Fourteenth Amendment violations for the removal of the plaintiff’s brochures from the common areas of the service plazas.
The Third Circuit found no state action under the entwinement test or any other test: there was no active and pervasive involvement by the state either in the decision to remove the brochures or in the day-to-day operations of the service plazas. The Third Circuit observed: “[T]he presence of government signs and images of state officials in the service plazas—without more—does not constitute entwinement.”
The Ninth Circuit’s Decision in Naffe v. Frey
In Naffe v. Frey, 789 F.3d 1030 (9th Cir. 2015), the plaintiff, a political activist, sued a county deputy district attorney for publishing allegedly derogatory statements about her on his personal Internet blog and on Twitter.
Affirming the district court’s dismissal of her § 1983 claim, the Ninth Circuit determined that the defendant did not act under color of law because he published for purely personal reasons and the communications were unrelated to his work as a county prosecutor. Further, both his blog and his Twitter page had disclaimers that the opinions expressed were the personal opinions of the defendant and did not represent the opinions of his employer.
In short, the defendant did not exercise government power: even though he used his experiences as a deputy district attorney to inform his blog posts and Tweets, he pursued “private goals via private actions.”
Plaintiffs in section 1983 cases sometimes try to sue private parties or entities for Fourteenth Amendment violations as a way of getting into federal court and, if they win, getting attorney’s fees under 42 U.S.C. section 1988. These private parties or entities may also have deeper pockets than some government officials or employees.
The First and Third Circuit cases are relatively straightforward state action cases: these courts marched through the various state actions tests, determined that none of them applied and, as a result, found that the plaintiffs did not state section 1983 claims since the Fourteenth Amendment was not implicated.
In marked contrast, the Ninth Circuit case deals with a different but related question: when does a government official lose his state actor status and act as a private person not subject to the Fourteenth Amendment and section 1983? I call this the “converse of the typical state action question” in chapter 2 of my treatise, CIVIL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES LITIGATION: THE LAW OF SECTION 1983 (2016; West).
Thus, the Ninth Circuit determined that the deputy district district attorney acted as a private person, and not as a government official or employee, when he published the challenged statements on his personal blog and on Twitter. He did not exercise government power either in reality or apparently.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @NahmodLaw.