No Pain, No Gain? A Review of the Physical Injury Requirement under the Prison Litigation Reform Act

In 1996, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) was enacted to address the increase of prisoner litigation in federal courts.  One provision of the PLRA states that an inmate cannot seek monetary damages for mental or emotional injuries unless that inmate can show a physical injury.

So what happens if an inmate files a lawsuit, such as for excessive force, and there is no evidence of a physical injury or an inmate admits that he is not injured?

The courts have held that absence of physical injury “may make [plaintiff’s] claim of very little financial value but does not make the claim non-existent.”[1]  Some courts have held that an inmate may seek compensatory damages that are not tied to his claim of mental injury, such as loss of program opportunities or privileges. Additionally, some courts have held that an inmate may continue to seek punitive damages against a defendant even if there is no physical injury.  Finally, an inmate may seek injunctive relief.

In one recent case, an inmate claimed that an officer “violently” shook him after the inmate verbally harassed the officer.  The inmate did not seek any injunctive relief and only sought monetary relief.  However, during the use of force video interview, the inmate claimed he did not suffer any physical injuries.  He also told two nurses that he was not injured, and admitted during his deposition and in written discovery that he suffered no physical injury.

Nonetheless, the court held that “while it may be difficult for plaintiff to persuade a fact finder at trial that, in light of the absence of physical injury, the force applied was nonetheless sufficient to warrant punitive damages or other damages not tied to mental or emotional injury, assessing plaintiff’s credibility as what force was applied and any harmful effect of the physical altercation is the role of the fact finder.”

Even if exposure in these cases may not be high because it is unlikely that a jury would find liability or damages in the absence of a physical injury in an excessive force case, preparing for trial can be time-consuming and costly. It takes both witnesses and defendants out of their jobs, and burdens an already overloaded court system.  Meanwhile, inmates may want to go to trial because they feel like they have nothing to lose.

Accordingly, if there is no evidence of physical injury (especially when an inmate has no physical injury), the court should make an early determination of whether there are any other potential damages or whether defendant’s conduct could rise to the level of punitive damages before allowing a case to go to trial.  This is in line with the spirit of the PLRA, which was designed to clear the courts of frivolous cases.

[1] Cockcroftv. Kirkland, 548 F. Supp. 2d 767, 777 (N.D. Cal. 2008)

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