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Law & Litigation Blog

Ohio Supreme Court Deals Yet Another Blow to Plaintiffs in Simpkins v. Grace Brethren Church of Delaware, Ohio

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.

I cannot accept the proposition that a teenager who is raped by a pastor fits into a preordained formula for damages. Are we really ready to affirm the legislature’s decision to say to a future victim, “we don’t know you, we don’t know the facts of your case, and we don’t know what a duly empaneled jury is going to say, but your damages are a maximum of $500,000?” No parent of a teenage daughter would accept that outcome as being just.

sexual-harassment-ohio

This blog has previously addressed how Ohio law is highly favorable to businesses, especially as compared to other states. One major way that Ohio law favors businesses is the cap on "compensatory tort damages" for "noneconomic loss."

Pursuant to RC 2315.18(B)(2), this type of damages (which encompasses "pain and suffering, loss of society, consortium, companionship, care, assistance, attention, protection, advice, guidance, counsel, instruction, training, or education, disfigurement, mental anguish, and any other intangible loss") is capped at "the greater of two hundred fifty thousand dollars or an amount that is equal to three times the economic loss, as determined by the trier of fact, of the plaintiff in that tort action to a maximum of three hundred fifty thousand dollars for each plaintiff in that tort action or a maximum of five hundred thousand dollars for each occurrence that is the basis of that tort action." There is also a cap on punitive damages, though that is a subject for another blog post.

The case of Simpkins v. Grace Brethren Church of Delaware, Ohio illustrates how brutally unfair this cap can be. A 15-year old girl who was raped by the senior pastor at Sunbury Grace Brethren Church in Delaware, Ohio filed a lawsuit. Obviously she was immensely traumatized. A Delaware County jury awarded her over $3.5 million in total compensatory damages, but the Judge reduced the award to only $350,000. So, the bad actors (including the church, which knew of two previous instances of sexual misconduct by the pastor yet still kept him on board and even promoted him) get a huge break. In a 3-2 decision (two Justices did not vote either way, but rather preferred to dismiss the appeal on procedural grounds as having been "improvidently accepted"), the Supreme Court of Ohio agreed with the Fifth District Court of Appeals, finding that the maximum amount of noneconomic damages the Plaintiff could be awarded was $350,000. 

The dissents read as follows:

PFEIFER, J., dissenting. 

{¶ 63} I join Justice O’Neill’s excellent dissent. {¶ 64} “Tort reform,” however misguided and unconstitutional, was designed to protect doctors and corporate interests. See Arbino v. Johnson & Johnson, 116 Ohio St.3d. 468, 2007-Ohio-6948, 880 N.E.2d 420, ¶ 163 (Pfeifer, J., dissenting). Today, we learn that “tort reform,” not surprisingly, had unintended consequences. It turns out that “tort reform” (and the justices who sanctioned it) also ensured that rapists and those who enable them will not have to pay the full measure of the damages they cause—even if they rape a child. It is past time for the General Assembly (and this court) to reconsider “tort reform” and return the authority to determine damages to juries, where it rightfully and constitutionally belongs. 

O’NEILL, J., dissenting. 

{¶ 65} I must dissent from the court’s decision on the first proposition of law. I cannot accept the proposition that a teenager who is raped by a pastor fits into a preordained formula for damages. Are we really ready to affirm the legislature’s decision to say to a future victim, “we don’t know you, we don’t know the facts of your case, and we don’t know what a duly empaneled jury is going to say, but your damages are a maximum of $500,000?” No parent of a teenage daughter would accept that outcome as being just. 

{¶ 66} A plaintiff’s damages, in terms of pain and suffering and future medical costs, could be astronomical. Or they could be nothing. Our system of civil justice leaves that question for the jury to decide, not the General Assembly. That is the point: a cookie-cutter approach simply does not work. In this case, a duly empaneled jury heard all the facts and found the damages to be over $3.6 million. By reducing that award to $500,000, the trial court has removed the jury from the process. If the General Assembly can limit damages for claims to $500,000, or $350,000, what would prevent it from limiting damages to $1? Would the court find that result to be constitutional? As stated by Justice Pfeifer in his well-reasoned dissent in Arbino v. Johnson & Johnson, 116 Ohio St.3d. 468, 2007-Ohio-6948, 880 N.E.2d 420, ¶ 170, “the General Assembly does not have this power; only the people by the amendment process have this power. After today, what meaning is left in a litigant’s constitutional right to have a jury determine damages?” 

{¶ 67} Justice Pfeifer further noted in his dissent in Arbino: “So long as the trial by jury is a part of our system of jurisprudence, its constitutional integrity and importance should be jealously safeguarded. The right of trial by jury should be as inviolate in the working of our courts as it is in the wording of our Constitutions.” Gibbs v. Girard (1913), 88 Ohio St. 34, 47, 102 N.E. 299. Instead of jealously safeguarding the right to trial by jury, the majority opinion in this case eviscerates it by holding constitutional a statute that enables courts to “enter judgments in disregard of the jury’s verdict.” Sorrell v. Thevenir (1994), 69 Ohio St.3d 415, 422, 633 N.E.2d 504. Instead of jealously safeguarding the right to trial by jury, the majority opinion employs shallow reasoning and shoddy logic in concluding that juries can meaningfully determine only facts that do not conflict with predetermined assessments of the General Assembly. Instead of jealously safeguarding the right to trial by jury, the majority opinion “cleans the scalpel for the legislature to cut away unrestrainedly at the whole field of tort redress.” Meech v. Hillhaven W., Inc. (1989), 238 Mont. 21, 52, 776 P.2d 488 (Sheehy, J., dissenting). Id. at ¶ 163. 

{¶ 68} 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. 

{¶ 69} 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. 

{¶ 70} I would reverse the decision of the trial court and reinstate the judgment of the jury.

 

Alex Durst is a Cincinnati civil litigation attorney and appellate attorney with The Durst Law Firm. Licensed in Ohio, Alex has also practiced in Missouri, Florida, Indiana, California, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Kentucky. Alex can be reached at (513) 621-2500 or alex@durstlawfirm.com.