A recent ruling of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the City of Indianapolis’ motion to vacate a $1.24 million jury verdict against the City following a bar fight involving two off-duty police officers.

In Bohanon v. City of Indianapolis, No. 20-3125 (7th Cir. 2002), two off-duty police officers were drinking in a pub when they noticed another patron, Bradford Bohanon, get into an argument with the bartender. When the two officers intervened, a fight ensued and Bohanon was brutally beaten by the two officers in the parking lot. Bohanon sued the City of Indianapolis under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the officers used excessive force in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment. Bohanon’s case was based on the theory of municipal liability under Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978) (claims aimed at government entities as the employer, supervisor and policymaker that result in violations of a clearly established constitutional right) was that his injuries were caused by a “gap” in the City’s policies.

Specifically, the City had in place a substance-abuse policy that prohibited off-duty officers from performing law-enforcement functions with any alcohol in their blood, except in limited situations of “extreme emergency” where police “action is required to prevent injury to the off-duty [officer] or another or to prevent the commission of a felony or other serious offense.” Bohanon’s claim argued that, by crafting this exception, the City was “deliberately indifferent to the obvious risk of constitutional violations” and therefore caused the officers to use excessive force against him.

The district court judge denied the City’s motion for summary judgment on the excessive force claim, and a jury ultimately found the City liable, awarding Bohanon $1.24 million in damages. The judge then granted the City’s motion for a judgment as a matter of law, vacating the jury’s verdict.

The appellate court reasoned that a claim against a municipality under § 1983 requires proof of both municipal fault and causation. Bohanon did not prove municipal fault because the exception in the City’s substance-abuse policy did not present a policy “gap” that made it obvious that off-duty officers would use excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Since no extreme emergency situation existed at the time of the incident, the City’s policies expressly prohibited the officers’ conduct and were not the “moving force” cause of Bohanon’s injury. The instant causation requirement supports the idea that municipal entities cannot be held vicariously liable under § 1983 for constitutional torts committed by their employees.

For more information about this article, contact Tressler attorney Jim Hess at jhess@tresslerllp.com.