A Florida jury last week awarded the family of Gregory Vaughn Hill Jr. 4 cents in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed after Hill was shot to death in his own home by a sheriff’s deputy in 2014. The deputies were investigating a complaint about loud, obscene music—Hill was listening to Drake’s “All Me”—and ended up shooting him through the closed door of his garage. Wait, 4 cents? How did that happen?
The jury may have been confused about the law, or else they tried to send a message, or it might be both at once. The lawsuit comprised two charges: a federal civil rights claim against the deputy who shot Hill to death, and a claim of negligence under state law against the county sheriff for allowing the shooting to have taken place. The jurors found in favor of the deputy on the first claim, and Hill’s family on the second. As for damages, they had been told that if they deemed it “entirely unclear” whether Hill’s injuries resulted from the unjustifiable use of force against him, they could award the family “nominal damages” of just $1; however, that instruction only applied to the first claim, not the one for which they found in the plaintiff’s favor. It appears the jury awarded nominal damages anyway.
How did nominal damages of $1 translate into four cents? On a claim of negligence, a jury must apportion out the blame for the incident between the parties. Hill had been inebriated when he was shot to death, and he had an unloaded 9 mm handgun in his back pocket. In the end, the jury decided that he’d been 99 percent responsible for what happened, while the sheriff was just 1 percent responsible. In many states, this would be the end of it: If the defendant is less than 50 percent responsible for what happened, he doesn’t have to pay a dime. But Florida is one of about a dozen states with “pure comparative negligence” laws, which means there’s no minimum threshold of responsibility for awarding damages. A defendant must pay damages proportional to his involvement in the outcome, however small that might be. In this case, the sheriff would owe 1 percent of the damages determined by the jury.
Take $1 in nominal damages and multiply it out by the sheriff’s 1 percent responsibility, and you get 1 cent. In finding for the plaintiff on the second count, however, the jury was instructed to award damages to four people: Hill’s mother, for the cost of his funeral expenses, and each of his three children—aged 9, 6, and 3 at the time of the shooting—for their mental pain and suffering and loss of parental companionship. The jurors awarded $1 across the board. The final total of $4 was then reduced to 4 cents given the finding of the sheriff’s 1 percent responsibility.
Among the many problems with this outcome is the fact that the $1 “nominal damages” instruction was supposed to apply to the federal civil rights claim but not the claim of negligence. In fact, the jury instructions specified that while there’s no exact standard to be used in determining compensation for the latter, awards should be “fair and just,” and based on evidence about the costs of the funeral and the effects of Hill’s shooting on his children’s lives. At trial, Hill’s mother testified that funeral expenses ran to about $11,000. His children testified as to the extent of their pain and suffering.
The jurors haven’t spoken to the press, so their motivations are unclear. They spent many hours deliberating and appeared at one point to be deadlocked. Two hours later, they sent the judge a cryptic note asking, “If we find minimal negligence, can the courts overrule monetary amounts presented by the jury?” The judge responded by saying, “The court does not understand the question.” Shortly afterward, their 4 cent verdict was delivered.
Here’s one more twist: Even if the jury did mistakenly apply the “nominal damages” option to the second claim, it may not have changed the outcome. Though Florida is a “pure comparative negligence” state, there is an exception on the books for people who are drunk or high. Since Hill had been drinking, and that fact led the jury to conclude he was more than 50 percent responsible for his own death, all liability for the defendant is wiped away, no matter the stated damages. That means the sheriff would have owed exactly nothing to the family even if the jury had awarded them, say, $11,000 for funeral expenses and half a million dollars for each child’s pain and suffering. As things stand, he’s not even responsible for the 4 cents in damages.
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Explainer thanks Andrew J. McClurg of the University of Memphis and attorney John M. Phillips.