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The exception to the general rule against punitive damages against municipalities in an action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983, is not an exception for particularly outrageous abuses, but is rather an exception for outrageous abuses for which the taxpayers are directly responsible.
Plaintiff was arrested for aggravated harassment in the second degree, a misdemeanor, and was taken to central booking, where she was subjected to a strip and body cavity search. She was subjected to the search based on defendant city's policy of cavity searching all arrestees whether misdemeanants, felons, or whether they were suspected of carrying contraband. Subsequently, plaintiff brought a suit under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 for an unlawful strip search of her person. After a jury trial, plaintiff was awarded compensatory damages and punitive damages after the jury concluded defendant had acted in wanton disregard of plaintiff's civil rights. Defendant appealed the punitive damages award.
Under the circumstances, was it proper to charge the defendant municipality punitive damages?
The court found defendant, as a municipality, was immune from punitive damages under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983. The only potential exception (for outrageous abuses for which the taxpayers were directly responsible) was inapplicable because defendant's strip search policy was not taxpayer generated. Consequently, the punitive damages award was reversed.