Iowa Supreme Court Confirms that Punitive Damages are Unavailable in Excessive Force Claims against the State

Posted on: February 4th, 2021

Plaintiff, Krystal Wagner, individually and as the administrator of her son’s estate, filed suit against the State of Iowa and a Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officer. Wagner’s son, who was nineteen years old and suicidal, was shot and killed by a DNR officer during an armed standoff. Wagner filed suit in federal court, asserting both federal and state constitutional claims and a common law negligence claim. The federal court sent certified questions of law to the Iowa Supreme Court, including the following:

Is the available remedy under the Iowa Tort Claims Act for excessive force by a law enforcement officer inadequate based on the unavailability of punitive damages? And if not, what considerations should courts address in determining whether legislative remedies for excessive force are adequate?

In an opinion authored by Justice Edward Mansfield, the Court answered “No.” The Court held the Iowa Tort Claims Act, which applies to claims against the State and state employees acting within the scope of their employment, bars punitive damages. The Supreme Court found “the legislature has clearly indicated that punitive damages should not be available.” The Court left open the possibility of punitive damages being available in cases involving certain unconstitutional conduct (such as invidious discrimination or suppression of free speech), but stated the bar on punitive damages in an excessive force case, such as Wagner’s, where there are no other unconstitutional conduct, did not deprive the injured party of an adequate remedy. Consequently, the Court was “not persuaded to overturn the bar on punitive damages imposed by the legislature.”

Wagner v. State, No. 19-1278 (Iowa Dec. 31, 2020).

Read more news articles »