WRIGHT v. WATSON et al
ORDER finding that O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33 does not apply to Plaintiff's § 1983 claims. Ordered by US DISTRICT JUDGE CLAY D LAND on 09/18/2017. (CCL)
Case 4:15-cv-00034-CDL Document 143 Filed 09/18/17 Page 1 of 8
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF GEORGIA
ROBERT H. WRIGHT JR.,
CASE NO. 4:15-CV-34 (CDL)
JERALD WATSON and JOHN GOODRICH, *
O R D E R
common law rule of joint and several liability.”
Thomas A. Eaton,
Who Owes How Much? Developments in Apportionment and Joint and
Several Liability Under O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33, 64 Mercer L. Rev. 15,
Then in 2005, the legislature amended O.C.G.A. § 51-
12-33 to eliminate joint and several liability in Georgia personal
See O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(b) (stating that the trier
of fact shall “apportion its award of damages among the persons
person” and shall not impose “a joint liability among the persons
O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33
42 U.S.C. § 1983, and they asked the Court to instruct the jury on
the issue of apportionment.
The Court previously ruled from the
Case 4:15-cv-00034-CDL Document 143 Filed 09/18/17 Page 2 of 8
Pretrial Conference Tr. 22:4-8, 52:23-53:1, Aug.
2, 2017, ECF No. 139.
This Order sets forth the rationale for
Plaintiff Robert Wright claims that Defendants Jerald Watson
illegally searched his home after spotting a marijuana grow site
on his next-door neighbor’s property.
Plaintiff argues that the
law enforcement officers did not have probable cause to seek a
search warrant for his property but that Watson, with input from
misrepresentations and omissions in the search warrant affidavit.
belonged to Plaintiff’s wife.
Officers arrested Plaintiff and his
wife for marijuana possession and felony marijuana manufacturing.
§ 1983 against a number of the law enforcement officers who were
involved in the searches.
After discovery, Plaintiff dismissed
remaining is his Fourth Amendment claim against Defendants Watson
Now, Defendants want the Court to ask the jury to
Case 4:15-cv-00034-CDL Document 143 Filed 09/18/17 Page 3 of 8
extent: Watson, Goodrich, Plaintiff himself, Plaintiff’s wife, and
“other law enforcement officers.”
Pretrial Order 29, ECF No. 136.
Defs.’ Proposed Verdict Form,
The Court is convinced that it
would be error to give such an instruction.
Section 1983 provides a cause of action against officials
“creates ‘a species of tort liability in favor of persons who are
deprived of rights, privileges, or immunities secured to them by
the Constitution,’” Memphis Cmty. Sch. Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S.
299, 305–06 (1986) (quoting Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 253
damages,” Murphy v. City of Flagler Beach, 846 F.2d 1306, 1308
(11th Cir. 1988).
The Court thus looks to 42 U.S.C. § 1988 to
determine the law of damages.
Murphy, 846 F.2d at 1308.
1988 provides, in relevant part:
The jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters conferred
on the district courts by the [civil rights laws] shall
be exercised and enforced in conformity with the laws of
the United States, so far as such laws are suitable to
carry the same into effect; but in all cases where they
are not adapted to the object, or are deficient in the
provisions necessary to furnish suitable remedies and
punish offenses against law, the common law, as modified
and changed by the constitution and statutes of the
State wherein the court having jurisdiction of such
Case 4:15-cv-00034-CDL Document 143 Filed 09/18/17 Page 4 of 8
civil or criminal cause is held, so far as the same is
not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the
United States, shall be extended to and govern the said
courts in the trial and disposition of the cause . . . .
42 U.S.C. § 1988(a).
“Section 1988 requires courts to use a ‘three-step process’
to determine the rules of decision applicable to a civil rights
Murphy, 846 F.2d at 1308 (quoting Wilson v. Garcia, 471
U.S. 261, 267, (1985)).
The first step is to “employ federal law
if it enforces the civil and criminal civil rights statutes.”
“If no suitable federal rule exists,” the second step is to apply
“state common law as modified by the constitution and statutes of
the forum state.”
But the “second step is limited by a third
step which allows courts to apply state law only if it is not
Defendants contend that § 1983 is deficient on the issue of
address compensatory damages in a case where more than one person
is liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.
assert that the Court should look to Georgia law to fill in this
In Murphy, the Eleventh Circuit found, based on its precedents and
other case law, that “a federal rule of mitigation applies in” § 1983
damages cases. Murphy, 846 F.2d at 1310. The Eleventh Circuit observed
that the rule was consistent with the purposes of § 1983 and did not
reach step two of the three-step process. Id. at 1309-10.
Case 4:15-cv-00034-CDL Document 143 Filed 09/18/17 Page 5 of 8
As a preliminary matter, the Court notes that the Eleventh
Circuit and its predecessor have
found that joint and several
liability applies in § 1983 damages actions.
See, e.g., Finch v.
City of Vernon, 877 F.2d 1497, 1503 (11th Cir. 1989) (finding that
“the district court, applying a federal rule of damages, correctly
held the City jointly and severally liable for the damages [the
plaintiff] suffered” when he was wrongfully terminated); Palmer v.
Hall, 517 F.2d 705, 706, 710 (5th Cir. 1975) (affirming joint and
juvenile, even though the judgment against his co-defendant, the
mayor, was reversed because there was no evidence that the mayor
participated in the incident); cf. Dean v. Gladney, 621 F.2d 1331,
1338 (5th Cir. 1980) (noting that joint and several liability is
“intertwined and interlocking” actions cause an injury) (quoting
Nesmith v. Alford, 318 F.2d 110, 119 (5th Cir. 1963)).2
Even if the Court assumes that there is no federal rule of
joint and several liability, the Court may only apply Georgia’s
inconsistent with the federal constitution and laws.”
F.2d at 1308.
“To determine whether state law is inconsistent
with federal law within the meaning of § 1988(a), the Supreme
In Bonner v. City of Prichard, 661 F.2d 1206, 1207 (11th Cir. 1981) (en
banc), the Eleventh Circuit adopted as binding precedent all decisions of
the former Fifth Circuit handed down prior to the close of business on
September 30, 1981.
Case 4:15-cv-00034-CDL Document 143 Filed 09/18/17 Page 6 of 8
Court teaches that courts must look to the text of the federal
statutes and Constitutional provisions at issue as well as the
policies expressed in them.”
Estate of Gilliam ex rel. Waldroup
(citing Robertson v. Wegmann, 436 U.S. 584, 590 (1978)).
Robertson, 436 U.S. at 591); accord Gilmere v. City of Atlanta,
864 F.2d 734, 739 (11th Cir. 1989).
acting under color of state law.”
Another important policy
Estate of Gilliam, 639 F.3d at
1046-47 (quoting Robertson, 436 U.S. at 591).
common law rule of joint and several liability is consistent with
these two policy considerations.
The question for the Court is
whether Georgia’s apportionment statute is consistent with these
Under Georgia’s apportionment statute, a jury is to consider
plaintiff’s injury, “regardless of whether the person or entity
O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33(c).
In other words, the jury must consider
the fault of “all persons or entities who have breached a legal
duty in tort that is owed with respect to the plaintiff, the
breach of which is a proximate cause of the injury sustained by
Case 4:15-cv-00034-CDL Document 143 Filed 09/18/17 Page 7 of 8
Zaldivar v. Prickett, 774 S.E.2d 688, 697 (Ga.
defendants with liability to the plaintiff, but also every other
tortfeasor whose commission of a tort as against the plaintiff was
tortfeasor would have actual liability in tort to the plaintiff.”
This is so regardless
of the intent or immunity of the
Id. (explaining that a tortfeasor with immunity is
still “at fault” for a plaintiff’s injuries); see also Couch v.
negligent tortfeasors and intentional tortfeasors are ‘answerable
in law’ to a plaintiff for damages caused to that plaintiff.”).
If these rules applied to a § 1983 Fourth Amendment claim,
then a jury could apportion damages to “at fault” non-parties
whose conduct contributed to the plaintiff’s injury, even if their
conduct was merely negligent and not a Fourth Amendment violation.
See Maughon v. Bibb Cty., 160 F.3d 658, 660 (11th Cir. 1998)
Thus, if the Court applied the Georgia statute to
tortious but not unconstitutional, could reduce damages that are
otherwise recoverable by Plaintiff for a federal constitutional
Plaintiff suffered because of a federal constitutional violation
Case 4:15-cv-00034-CDL Document 143 Filed 09/18/17 Page 8 of 8
could be reduced even if Plaintiff has no right to recover against
apportionment statute to this
§ 1983 action
result in a
person who is injured by a constitutional violation not being
fully compensated for the damages caused by the violation, and it
violation to escape full responsibility for his unconstitutional
apportionment statute is not consistent with the policy goals of
Accordingly, the Court concludes that O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33
does not apply to Plaintiff’s § 1983 claims.
For the reasons set forth above, O.C.G.A. § 51-12-33 does not
instructed on apportionment.
IT IS SO ORDERED, this 18th day of September, 2017.
S/Clay D. Land
CLAY D. LAND
CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE
Defendants argue that even if the Court does not apply the Georgia
apportionment statute as written to apportion liability between parties
and non-parties, the Court at a minimum should apply the statute to the
two existing Defendants and have the jury apportion fault as to these two
Aside from concerns related to applying the apportionment
statute in piecemeal fashion, the Court finds that well accepted joint
and several liability principles better address the issue in a manner
consistent with § 1983’s purposes. These principles authorize the jury
to hold each Defendant legally responsible only for the damages that his
constitutional violation separately causes, and if their unconstitutional
conduct joins together to cause an indivisible injury, then the jury is
authorized to hold both Defendants jointly responsible for the entire
indivisible injury to which their conduct substantially contributed.
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?