Ohio Supreme Court Rules Tort Damage Caps Unconstitutional in Child Sex Abuse Cases

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled recently that a state law capping the number of damages awarded for “pain and suffering” claims in a personal injury lawsuit applied to child sex abuse cases is unconstitutional.

A 4-3 decision from the state Supreme Court said that youth victims who “suffer traumatic, extensive, and chronic psychological injury as a result of intentional criminal acts and who sue their abusers for civil damages,” should not have caps on “non-economic damages.”

In making the decision, the court upheld a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court jury award of $134 million based on a 2007 sexual abuse case. This included $20 million for “mental health injuries” inflicted by the abuser.

A jury found Roy Pompa guilty in May 2007 on over 90 charges related to sexual abuse he committed on his daughters’ 11-year-old friend Amanda Brandt. Pompa received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. A $20 million award intended to go to Brandt would have been capped at $250,000 due to a state tort reform law passed in 2005, which limited “non-economic” damages. Brandt’s case would have been capped because she had “severe psychological injury” and not “permanent physical injuries.”

Brandt testified that succeeding the abuse, she suffered from panic attacks due to the trauma, developed a drug addiction, and made an attempt on her life. She attended counseling for 14 years and testified that “she could not foresee a time when she would not need counseling.”

Most of the court ruled that the cap on damages is unconstitutional for sexually assaulted children because it “overlooked a small class of plaintiffs who are arbitrarily excluded from recovering the full amount” of damages from a jury.

“For this limited class of litigants people like Brandt who were victimized at a very young age and who bring civil actions to recover damages from the persons who have been found guilty of those intentional criminal acts the constitutional guarantee of due course of law is unjustly withheld,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor said.

Democratic Justices Michael P. Donnelly, Melody Stewart, and Jennifer Brunner concurred with Chief Justice O’Connor’s opinion.

Republican Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, and R. Patrick DeWine issued a dissenting opinion jointly written by the three justices. The dissenters said that the majority was incorrectly substituting its policy preferences for that of the General Assembly. They wrote that the legislature, after performing research, realized that “damages for things like pain and suffering and mental anguish are inherently subjective.” Because it had a significant interest in defending the civil justice system and the state economy by capping non-economic harm for injuries that are challenging to prove or quantify, the General Assembly did not act arbitrarily or unreasonable in response to that issue “without evidence of a physical component,” they stated.

The dissenters continued saying that the Ohio General Assembly established “tort reform,” laws to minimize the volume and associated costs of tort litigation in the judicial system, “to protect the Ohio economy from the increasing number of tort claims being filed and the increasing amounts of the damages being awarded in those claims, both of which were negatively impacting the cost of doing business in the state, threatening Ohio jobs, driving up consumer costs and stifling innovation.”

“This is a reasonable and legitimate government interest, and the General Assembly has not arbitrarily selected winners and losers under the statute,” the dissenters wrote.

According to the court records, the Ohio Legislature worried about “inflated damage awards” when they passed the legislation stating that the non-economic damages are “inherently subjective” and potentially influenced by “improper consideration of evidence of wrongdoing.”

According to the dissenters, the state Supreme Court is not the correct place to choose whether to cap injuries in civil cases. While victims of sexual abuse “are worthy of protection and compensation the General Assembly is the ultimate arbiter of public policy.”

“By resolving the merits of this case, the majority opinion improperly involves the judiciary in matters that belong exclusively and fundamentally to the General Assembly. It is this type of result-oriented judicial activism that blurs the line in the public’s eye about which branch of government is truly responsible for the policies of this state,” the dissenters said.

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Hannah Poling is a lead reporter at The Ohio Star and The Star News Network. Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahPoling1. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Ohio Supreme Court” by Minh Nguyen CC4.0

 

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