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Saturday, February 1, 2014

How Much Is My False Arrest Case Worth?

As a civil rights lawyer, I frequently am consulted by people who have been arrested by the police without justification, what the law calls a “false arrest.”  After describing the facts to me, they always ask me two questions:  first, “do I have a case?” and, second, “how much money can I win in court?”  These are complicated questions that depend on the facts of each case.  Nevertheless, there are certain general principles that apply to all false arrest cases.

Regarding the first question, I discussed the requirements for bringing a false arrest lawsuit in a previous blog entry.  This blog entry will discuss how much a person’s false arrest claim may be worth.

Generally speaking, a "false arrest" occurs when a police officer (or sometimes a private person or business) detains or confines a person against his or her will and without proper legal authority.  A false arrest violates both federal law (the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution as enforced through 42 U.S.C. s. 1983) and New York law (the common law tort of false imprisonment). 

Under both federal and state law, a person who is falsely arrested is entitled to compensation for (1) loss of liberty, and (2) physical and/or emotional pain and suffering caused by the false arrest.  (Injuries caused by excessive force and malicious prosecution are compensated separately.)

Importantly, a person who is falsely arrested is legally entitled to compensation for loss of liberty (to redress denial of free movement and harm to personal dignity), even if he or she does not experience any additional physical or emotional pain and suffering.  See Kerman v. City of New York, 374 F.3d 93,123-126 (2d Cir. 2004); Gardner v. Federated Department Stores, Inc., 907 F.2d 1348, 1353 (2d Cir. 1990).

Obviously, a person who suffers more harm, including physical and/or emotional injuries, would be entitled to more compensation than a person who suffers less harm, including only loss of liberty.  Nevertheless, “even absent such other injuries, an award of several thousand dollars may be appropriate simply for several hours loss of liberty.”  Kerman, supra, at 125-126.

Ultimately, the question as to how much a person should be compensated for being falsely arrested is decided by the jury (or sometimes the judge in a bench trial), which has broad discretion to award an amount of money that is “fair and reasonable” given all of the facts and circumstances of the case.  The jury is not required to award the plaintiff any specific amount of money; it can award a small amount or a large amount, depending on the case.

It is impossible to predict how much the jury (or judge) will award in any given case.  However, reported court decisions provide useful insight as to how courts “value” false arrest claims.  These decisions include:

In Gardner v. Federal Department Stores, supra,  at 1353, the Second Circuit held that $50,000 was reasonable compensation for approximately 8 hours in custody, or $6250 per hour.

In Musto v. Arakel, 584 N.Y.S.2d 812, 813 (N.Y. App. 1st Dep’t 1992) (mem.), the First Department held that $60,000 was reasonable compensation for a false arrest (time in custody not given by court in decision).

In Roundtree v. City of New York, 617 N.Y.S.2d 170, 171 (N.Y. App. 1st Dep’t 1994) (mem.), the First Department held that $200,000 was reasonable compensation for approximately 84 hours in custody, or $2381 per hour.

In Mercado v. City of New York, 703 N.Y.S.2d 283, 283 (N.Y. App. 2d Dep’t 2000) (mem.), the Second Department affirmed the jury’s verdict that $120,000 was reasonable compensation for a false arrest (time in custody not given by court in decision).

In Martinez v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 445 F.3d 158, 160-161 (2d Cir. 2006) (per curiam), the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling that $160,000 was reasonable compensation for approximately 19 hours in custody, or $8421 per hour.

In Sylvester v. City of New York, 2006 WL 3230152, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 8, 2006), the district court affirmed the jury’s verdict that $30,000 was reasonable compensation for “several hours” in custody at precinct (specific time in custody not given by court in decision).

In Landow v. Town of Amherst, 853 N.Y.S.2d 760, 761 (N.Y. App. 4th Dep’t 2008) (mem.), the Fourth Department affirmed the lower court’s ruling that $10,000 was reasonable compensation for approximately 4 hours in custody, or $2500 per hour.

Based on these cases – and there are others that show larger and smaller amounts of compensation – a good rule of thumb is that a false arrest claim may be “worth” between $2500 and $5000 per hour that the plaintiff spends in custody, depending on the facts of the case.  (Note:  These amounts do not include punitive damages, which the plaintiff sometimes is awarded in false arrest cases.)

Of course, some cases will be worth more and some cases will be worth less.  As noted previously, it is impossible to predict how a jury (or judge) will rule in any given case.  Consequently, it is prudent for lawyers and clients alike to take a cautious, conservative approach in estimating how much a false arrest claim may be worth.  Importantly, the settlement value of a case is less than the potential value of a case that wins at trial.  Why?  Because settlements require compromise, meaning the plaintiff accepts a lesser amount for the case in exchange for the certainty of obtaining reasonable compensation for the false arrest. 

Moreover, this analysis assumes that the plaintiff in fact proves that he was falsely arrested.  A person who was not falsely arrested is not entitled to any compensation for being held in custody, no matter how long the detention or how traumatic the experience (although the person may have other claims, e.g., for excessive force or for denial of due process).        

Lastly, it should be noted that under federal law, but not under state law, a plaintiff who wins a false arrest lawsuit is entitled to recover reasonable attorney’s fees, in addition to compensatory damages.  In many cases, this means that the defendant will be ordered to pay the plaintiff’s lawyer directly, instead of the lawyer taking a percentage of the plaintiff’s jury award. 

If you or someone you know has been the victim of a false arrest, please contact The Warshawsky Law Firm today.

 


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