Battery Claim Proceeds In Absence of Significant Injury

Depending on the circumstances, a police officer pulling a handcuffed person by the chain linking the two cuffs may be enough to support a claim for assault and battery in Tennessee, even without evidence of a significant injury.

In Stafford v. Jackson County, Tennessee, No. M2016-01883-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 4, 2017), plaintiff sued a sheriff’s deputy, the sheriff, and the county after being arrested by the deputy. The deputy had pulled plaintiff’s husband over for speeding, and plaintiff and her son arrived on the scene after hearing about it on a police scanner. Plaintiff approached the deputy, and though there was a dispute regarding what was said and how cooperative or uncooperative plaintiff was, the deputy ultimately handcuffed and arrested plaintiff for obstructing a traffic stop. Regarding the handcuffing procedure, plaintiff testified in her deposition that the officer first cuffed her right hand, then her left, “then pulled me up by the chain, by the middle of the cuff, the chain.” Plaintiff testified that when the chain was pulled, it was painful and she screamed. When she arrived at the jail, plaintiff told personnel there that her wrists and shoulders hurt, and after her release she went to the local medical center, where she was x-rayed and given medication for her blood pressure.

Plaintiff brought suit, asserting several theories of liability. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants on all claims, finding specifically that plaintiff had not established the elements of an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, and that plaintiff had not shown damages to support her assault and battery claim. Plaintiff appealed the dismissal of the assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims. On appeal, summary judgment on the emotional distress claim was affirmed, but the holding on the assault and battery claim was reversed.

The Court first looked at the assault and battery claim. The trial court had held that there was a question of fact regarding whether the officer here used excessive force, and the Court of Appeals agreed. The Court noted that “a police officer can be liable for damages caused by his excessive and unprivileged use of force under the intentional tort of battery.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Defendants relied on cases addressing the act of handcuffing, but the Court deemed these cases inapplicable, as “the plaintiffs’ argument is based on [the officer’s] actions after [plaintiff] was already handcuffed.” Based on the testimony offered by plaintiff, the Court agreed that a question of fact existed as to whether excessive force was used.

While the trial court had found a question of fact on the force issue, it had nonetheless granted summary judgment because it found that plaintiff “failed to establish the element of damages in this case.” The Court of Appeals, though, reversed this holding. The Court pointed out that “the tort of battery [is defined] as an intentional act that causes an unpermitted, harmful or offensive bodily contact.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Looking to federal law, the Court noted that “federal case law on excessive force generally holds that a significant physical injury is not required to survive summary judgment.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Here, plaintiff testified that she was in pain, she screamed, she told the jail personnel that she was in pain, and she went to the emergency room. Based on this evidence, the Court found that “[a] genuine issue of material fact exist[ed] as to damages” and reversed dismissal of the assault and battery claim.

Second, the Court analyzed the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. The elements of this tort require a plaintiff to show that “defendant’s conduct was (1) intentional or reckless, (2) so outrageous that it is not tolerated by civilized society, and (3) resulted in serious mental injury to the plaintiff.” “Liability has been found only where the conduct has been so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). Reviewing the facts presented here, the Court held that the allegations made by plaintiff simply did not rise to this level of outrageous conduct. Summary judgment on this claim was thus affirmed.

The most notable take-away here is that a battery claim was allowed to proceed with no proof of a significant injury. While the Court spent a good bit of its analysis looking at other excessive force cases involving police use of force, this case could still be a good one to reference if making a battery claim for a client with only minor physical injuries.

That said, one must wonder whether the juice is worth the squeeze in this case.  To be sure, it is not the job of the courts to determine, as a matter of law, whether it makes financial sense for a plaintiff or a plaintiff’s lawyer to file or proceed with a case.  And some cases need to be pursued, even though the economics of proceeding are questionable or extremely weak. But if I were the plaintiff’s lawyer (whom I know to be a great guy and a true believer in the need to hold police officers and departments accountable for misconduct) I would not base my retirement plan on the outcome of this case.