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Ohio Tort Reform Used to Protect a Rapist

Our blog has dedicated a number of posts to the inherent unfairness created by the damage cap provisions included as part of “tort reform” legislation in the early 2000’s. These limits on noneconomic damage awards were passed to protect big business and insurance companies from the perceived danger of “runaway juries” awarding high dollar amounts for the pain and suffering, emotional distress, and mental anxiety suffered by tort victims. In doing so, however, the General Assembly cast aside centuries of legal precedent regarding the constitutional right to a trial by jury, taking this determination out of the hands of “one’s peers” and replacing it with a cookie-cutter approach passed by big government that protects wrongdoers in even the most egregious cases. Members of the voting public, who had granted the legislators their positions of power, were now being told by their representatives that they could not be trusted with making such a finding. These awards would instead be limited to an arbitrarily determined maximum, set in stone for all matters going forward, without any consideration for the facts of a particular case or the amount of harm caused by the wrongdoer.

When the interests of large corporations and the insurance industry were given priority over the constitutional rights of individuals, injured victims were bound to suffer the consequences. Perhaps the clearest example of this injustice came to light earlier this week when the Ohio Supreme Court issued its decision in Simpkins v. Grace Brethren Church of Delaware. The Court had been asked to rule upon the constitutionality of these damage caps as applied to a jury award in favor of the plaintiff, who had been raped on multiple occasions by a pastor at her church when she was only 15 years old. Her case was brought for negligence against the church, who had hired and retained the pastor despite knowledge of two prior accusations of misconduct involving teenage girls. After hearing all of the evidence in the case, a Delaware County jury awarded her $3,500,000 in “noneconomic” damages for her pain, suffering, emotional and mental distress, and loss of enjoyment of life. However, the trial court then applied the tort “reform” cap on these damages to limit her award to $250,000. The ruling was affirmed by the Fifth District Court of Appeals, despite her lawyer's arguments that application of the cap violated her rights under the Ohio Constitution to a jury trial, open courts and a remedy, due process, and equal protection.

In a 3-2 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the application of these damage caps, even in such a shocking and outrageous scenario where a young girl was brutually harmed for life. Dissenting opinions were issued by Justice Paul Pfiefer, a long-time champion of the rights of tort victims in Ohio who is set to retire at the conclusion of this term, as well as Justice William O’Neill, the lone Democrat on the bench. In his scathing rebuke of the majority decision, Justice O’Neill pointed out the following:

“The only way to bypass the Ohio Constitution and make changes to the tort system in Ohio would be by constitutional amendment. Unless and until that happens, arbitrary caps on damages are unconstitutional. This child was raped in a church office by a minister, and a duly empaneled jury established an appropriate level of compensation for the loss of her childhood innocence. We have no right to interfere with that process. Shame on the General Assembly. The children are watching. And I for one do not like what they are seeing.”

The Columbus Dispatch story on the case can be found here.