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Record malicious prosecution award upheld

A divided 4th Circuit panel has upheld a $1.7 million malicious prosecution award to a night dock supervisor accused of stealing computers from a loading dock of a Colonial Heights shipping company.

The award from a jury in Richmond federal court to Clyde L. Bennett was one of VLW’s top verdicts for 2009. Senior U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne upheld the verdict last year, and today the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the award, which included $350,000 in punitive damages, in a 71-page unpublished opinion in Bennett v. R&L Carriers Shared Services LLC.

Although the defendant shipping company called the verdict “bizarrely excessive,” Judge Andre M. Davis said it was supported by Virginia precedent and Bennett’s circumstances. Davis said Bennett had suffered a “drastic reversal of fortune” after his arrest and termination, that a jury could find was “particularly harsh for a man who had been scrupulous in his personal savings and work ethic.” The court also endorsed use of estimated future earnings as part of the compensatory damage award.

In his dissent, Judge G. Steven Agee, a former Virginia Supreme Court justice, said Virginia courts have long “disfavored” malicious prosecution claims, and malicious prosecution actions against common carriers “are particularly problematic.”

Agee disagreed that there was enough evidence to find either a lack of probable cause or legal malice, and said the damage award met the “shocks the conscience” standard.

Agee said Bennett’s award was substantially higher than any malicious prosecution damage award affirmed by the Virginia high court in the past 100 years, “if not in that Court’s history.” He cited unchallenged research by the defendants: From 1911 through 2011, of the 42 malicious prosecution cases heard by the Supreme Court of Virginia, the highest award of compensatory damages, $185,000, came in 2011.

The compensatory damages award here was almost seven times the combined amount of all affirmed awards in a century, Agee said.
–Deborah Elkins

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