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Perry v. Roy

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 4, 2016

RICO PERRY, Plaintiff,
v.
SUSIE ROY and CLAIRE ROCHA, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS’ MOTION FOR JUDGMENT AS A MATTER OF LAW, NEW TRIAL, OR REMITTITUR, AND PLAINTIFF’S MOTION FOR ATTORNEYS’ FEES

F. DENNIS SAYLOR IV, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

In June 2007, plaintiff Rico Perry suffered a broken jaw in an altercation with correctional officers while in custody at the Bristol County House of Correction. Defendants Susie Roy and Claire Rocha were staff nurses at the facility and evaluated Perry after the incident. Perry brought suit against the nurses pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that they exhibited deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.[1] The case was tried to a jury in September 2015; the jury found that both Roy and Rocha violated Perry’s constitutional rights and awarded him compensatory damages in the amount of $50, 000 and punitive damages in the amount of $500, 000.

Pending before the Court is defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, or, in the alternative, a new trial or remittitur. Plaintiff has also moved for attorneys’ fees. For the reasons set forth below, defendants’ motion will be granted in part and denied in part, and plaintiff’s motion for attorneys’ fees and costs will be granted, with minor modifications.

I. Defendants’ Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, New Trial, or Remittitur

Judgment as a matter of law may be granted when the evidence, considered in the light most hospitable to the verdict, “is so one-sided that [the moving party] is plainly entitled to judgment, for reasonable minds could not differ as to the outcome.” Colasanto v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., 100 F.3d 203, 208 (1st Cir. 1996) (citation omitted); Zimmerman v. Direct Fed. Credit Union, 262 F.3d 70, 75 (1st Cir. 2001) (“[T]he jury’s verdict must stand unless the evidence, taken in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, points unerringly to an opposite conclusion.”).

A court must grant a new trial when jury instructions contain a prejudicial error. Sullivan v. National Football League, 34 F.3d 1091, 1107 (1st Cir. 1994). A jury instruction is erroneous if it does not adequately explain the law, or it confuses or misleads the jury as to a material issue in the case. See Id. at 1107-08.

As an alternative to ordering a new trial, a court may order a remittitur of damages in certain circumstances. The First Circuit has held that a district court is “obligated . . . to grant a remittitur or a new trial on damages only when the award ‘exceeds any rational appraisal or estimate of the damages that could be based upon the evidence before it.’” Eastern Mountain Platform Tennis, Inc. v. Sherwin-Williams Company, Inc., 40 F.3d 492, 502 (1st Cir. 1994) (quoting Milone v. Moceri Family, Inc., 847 F.2d 35, 36 (1st Cir. 1988)). Courts have interpreted this standard to mean that a damages award must stand unless it is “grossly excessive, inordinate, shocking to the conscience of the court, or so high that it would be a denial of justice to permit it to stand.” Correa v. Hospital San Francisco, 69 F.3d 1184, 1197 (1st Cir. 1995). The Court need not, however, give the plaintiff the option of a new trial if it grants remittitur only as to punitive damages. See Bisbal-Ramos v. City of Mayaguez, 467 F.3d 16, 27 (1st Cir. 2006).

A. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

The Court essentially instructed the jury that Perry had to prove two separate elements to be granted judgment on his claim: (1) that he had one or more serious medical needs and (2) that the defendants were deliberately indifferent to his serious medical needs. (Tr. Day 4 at 66:4). In the present motion, defendants challenge the jury’s verdict as to both elements.

1.Serious Medical Need

With respect to the first element, the jury was instructed that “[a] person has a ‘serious medical need’ if the person has an injury or condition that poses a substantial risk to his health or safety, or that poses a substantial risk of significant pain and suffering, such that medical care or treatment should be provided in a timely fashion.” (Tr. Day 4 at 66:12). The Court further instructed the jury that the standard for determining a serious medical need “is objective- whether a reasonable physician or other trained medical professional (or, if sufficiently obvious, a lay person) would conclude, under the circumstances, that the prisoner had a serious medical need.” (Tr. Day 4 at 66:18).

There was more than sufficient evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that Perry had a serious medical need at the time of his evaluations by Nurses Roy and Rocha. Perry testified that at the time of his first examination by Nurse Roy, he had “blood inside [his] mouth, ” “lumps on [his] face, ” and that his jaw was “clinched” and “not moving.” (Tr. Day 2 at 36-38). Nurse Roy herself testified that Perry had bleeding inside the mouth and a cracked lower-left molar. (Tr. Day 3 at 76-77). Perry further testified that at the time of Nurse Rocha’s examination, he had cuts in his mouth, one missing and one “bent” tooth, and “knots on [his] head.” (Tr. Day 2 at 42). Dr. David Fuerman, who treated Perry at St. Luke’s Hospital, testified that Perry’s jaw was fractured in two places. (Tr. Day 2 at 129:13). Finally, the jury could have reasonably concluded that Perry’s jaw was broken during the altercation, before he was seen by either nurse, and constituted a serious medical need.

2.Deliberate Indifference

As to the second element, the Court instructed the jury that “[t]here are two different ways in which the plaintiff may prove that a defendant was ‘deliberately indifferent’: First, the plaintiff may prove that a defendant actually knew that he had one or more serious medical needs and disregarded those needs. . . . Second, the plaintiff may prove that a defendant was ‘willfully blind’ to his serious medical needs.” (Tr. Day 4 at 67:15).

The evidence was not so one-sided that either defendant was “plainly entitled to judgment.” See Colasanto, 100 F.3d at 208. With respect to Nurse Roy, the evidence indicated that despite Perry’s condition, she spent no more than two minutes examining Perry during her first evaluation. (Tr. Day 2 at 39:25). The jury was also entitled to credit Perry’s testimony that Nurse Roy saw him a second time, for one minute only, and that during that second visit, Nurse Roy responded to an unidentified correctional officer’s concern that Perry might need to go to the hospital by saying, “No, he’s all right, he’s fine, trust me.” (Id. at 41-42).

With respect to Nurse Rocha, the evidence established that she did not examine Perry’s jaw despite his belief that it was broken and that it felt “off-set.” (Id. at 43, 45). Furthermore, it was not disputed that Rocha “examined” Perry through the window of the door to his cell, and did not enter the cell for a more thorough evaluation. (Tr. Day 3 at 119:18).

Thus, the jury could have concluded that despite the fact that Perry had been in an altercation, and despite his injuries described above, neither defendant performed anything more than a cursory examination. As a result, the jury could have concluded that defendants either had actual knowledge of Perry’s injuries but did nothing, or that they willfully made themselves blind to his injuries.

B. Motion for New Trial

Defendants contend that they are entitled to a new trial because the Court’s instruction to the jury on willful blindness was erroneous. The Court instructed the jury as follows:

[T]he plaintiff may prove that a defendant was “willfully blind” to his serious medical needs. In order to prove that a defendant was willfully blind, the plaintiff must prove two things: (1) that the defendant was aware of a high probability of the existence of one or more serious medical needs, and (2) that the defendant consciously and deliberately avoided learning of those serious medical needs. However, mere negligence, mistake, or ...

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