The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Thursday that plaintiffs cannot recover punitive damages from the state when a law enforcement officer uses excessive force. Punitive damages are awarded as a way to punish the defendant and to deter that same conduct in the future.
The Iowa Tort Claims Act (ITCA) prohibits an award of punitive damages against the state. The ITCA is Iowa’s controlling law for tort claims against the state and state employees acting within the scope of their employment. The state automatically becomes a defendant when a state employee is sued for conduct while acting in their official capacity.
The Iowa Supreme Court held that there is no “vested right” to punitive damages and that the state legislature may bar them completely. The court reasoned that in a case involving excessive force, other damages are available. Therefore, the damages available to a plaintiff in an excessive force suit are already adequate.
Plaintiff Krystal Wagner, the mother of Shane Jensen, brought suit against the State of Iowa and Officer William Spece. Officer Spece killed nineteen-year-old Shane Jensen while Jensen was having a mental health crisis. Jensen had a gun at the scene and Officer Spece knew of his condition.
Officer Spece claimed that Jensen pointed his weapon at the officers present, but later video discredited the allegation.