Judge nixes $500K punitive award against ex-prison guard
DOVER, Del. (AP) — A federal judge has overturned a jury’s decision imposing $500,000 in punitive damages against a former a Delaware prison guard accused of sexually assaulting an inmate during a pat-down.
The jury found in December that former Department of Correction Sgt. William Kuschel violated the Eighth Amendment rights of inmate DeShawn Drumgo during the 2014 incident. Jurors also said, however, that Drumgo had failed to prove he had been injured.
The jury awarded Drumgo $1 in nominal damages but slapped Kuschel with $500,000 in punitive damages.
The judge on Wednesday denied Kuschel’s request for a new trial but also declared that the punitive damage award was excessive and violated Kuschel’s due process rights.
“A $500,000 award under the circumstances of this case shocks the conscience and grossly exceeds what was required to serve the needs of deterrence and punishment,” Chief District Judge Colm Connolly wrote. “Leaving in place such an exorbitant award will also dissuade correctional officers from conducting searches they would otherwise perform and lead to the introduction of weapons and contraband into Delaware’s prisons.”
Relying on comparisons to punitive awards in similar cases from other federal districts across the country, Connolly said a $5,000 penalty was adequate to punish Kuschel and deter others from engaging in similar conduct.
“A $5,000 punitive award is also in line with punitive awards imposed against correctional officers for more egregious sexual assaults against inmates,” Connolly added.
While escaping the huge damages award, Kuschel lost his bid for a new trial after arguing that another inmate should not have been allowed to testify that he had also been groped by Kuschel during three frisk searches several months before Drumgo was assaulted.
Drumgo said in a lawsuit that Kuschel patted and groped him inappropriately as other inmates and staff watched, then squeezed his genitals so hard that the skin ruptured while other guards laughed.
A federal appeals court panel ruled in 2020 that Connolly had wrongly granted summary judgment to Kuschel. Connolly’s ruling was based on Drumgo’s supposed failure to show sufficient facts to establish that Kuschel violated his constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Other Department of Correction workers testified that the search was proper and that they never heard Drumgo tell Kuschel to stop what he was doing, as other inmates had said.
DOC officials had won a previous summary judgment ruling after arguing that Drumgo had failed to exhaust available administrative remedies before filing his lawsuit. But after Drumgo successfully appealed that ruling, prison officials said a subsequent search found that Drumgo had in fact filed a grievance against Kuschel.
Drumgo was sentenced to 23 years in prison in 2007 after being convicted of second-degree murder in the 2006 stabbing death of another man at a Wilmington apartment complex.