Damage Caps Constitutional When Applied to Sexual Assault of Minor
The Supreme Court affirmed the Fifth District Court of Appeals decision allowing a $3.6 million jury verdict in favor of Jessica Simpkins to be reduced to $500,000 when the trial court applied limits on “noneconomic damages,” which the Ohio General Assembly enacted as part of a 2005 “tort reform” law.
Simpkins and her father sued their church and former church leaders claiming that in March 2008 Brian Williams, the senior pastor of Sunbury Grace Brethren Church, forced oral and vaginal intercourse with Simpkins who was 15 years old at the time. Williams was convicted of two counts of sexual battery and sentenced to two four-year prison terms.
Simpkins argued the caps in R.C. 2315.18(B)(2) for noneconomic loss, which include “pain and suffering,” “loss of consortium,” “loss of companionship,” “disfigurement,” and ”mental anguish” are unconstitutional when it comes to minors because they suffer far more long-term consequences from the emotional damages of a sexual assault than they would from any “economic” damages. Writing the Court’s lead opinion, Justice Judith L. French wrote there may be a set of circumstances where the statutory damages caps would prove unconstitutional, but the law “as applied to the facts before us” is constitutional.
In separate dissenting opinions, Justices Paul E. Pfeifer and William M. O’Neill argued that the General Assembly’s caps on jury awards are unconstitutional and can only be imposed by an amendment to the Ohio Constitution.
Simpkinses Seek to Hold Church Responsible
The Simpkins family’s claims against Delaware Grace Brethren Church for the negligent hiring, retention, and supervision of Williams were the only portion of the lawsuit to reach the Supreme Court. Williams was hired by Delaware Grace in 1988 as a youth pastor and became an associate pastor. In 2004, Williams worked on establishing the new Sunbury Grace church with the support and assistance of the Delaware Grace Elder Board. Delaware Grace provided the primary financial support for creating Sunbury Grace, and a Delaware Grace pastor served as Williams’ supervisor for at least a year after he became senior pastor at Sunbury Grace.
In March 2008, Simpkins met Williams in his office for a private counseling session. Williams demanded oral sex from Simpkins, and she testified that she initially refused, but eventually complied seeing it as her only option to get out of the office. She said she ran for the door, but Williams blocked and shut it and then forced her into vaginal intercourse.
While Williams went to prison for the incident, Simpkins and her father sued Delaware and Sunbury Grace churches, Williams, and Darrell Anderson, a former Delaware Grace senior pastor.
The Simpkinses settled their claims against Sunbury Grace for $90,000. The lawsuit alleged Delaware Grace and Anderson knew or should have known that Williams was unqualified to serve based on prior incidents while Williams worked at Delaware Grace, and that the church was negligent in retaining him as an employee and assisting him in becoming the new church’s senior pastor.
Prior Incidents of Misconduct Reported
In the early 1990s a teenage girl from another Grace Brethren church accused Williams of inappropriately touching her while on a mission trip, which Williams denied. In 2002, a young woman made substantiated allegations about Williams inappropriately touching her and making sexual comments. Anderson, who supervised Williams at time, told him his behavior was inappropriate, but he did not report the incident to the senior pastor or the church’s elder board.
The trial court found Delaware Grace was negligent and awarded Jessica Simpkins $3.651 million dollars -- $1,300 for past economic damages, $150,000 for future economic damages, $1.5 million for past noneconomic damages, and $2 million for future noneconomic damages.
Ohio Law Caps Damages
The General Assembly adopted Senate Bill 80, which took effect in 2005. The legislation stated it promoted the state’s interest in “a fair, predictable system of civil justice.” Part of the law, R.C. 2315.18, set out procedures for imposing damages, which require a jury to specify the total compensatory damages awarded, dividing them into economic and noneconomic damages. The statute establishes caps on the amount for noneconomic damages and places a maximum $350,000 award for each plaintiff for each “occurrence” that is the basis for the lawsuit.
The damage caps do not apply when the noneconomic loss is for “permanent and substantial physical deformity, loss of use of a limb, or loss of a bodily organ system,” or for “permanent physical functional injury that permanently prevents the injured person from being able to independently care for self and perform life-sustaining activities.”
The legislation also stated that awards for pain and suffering are “inherently subjective,” and the damage awards can be inflated by “improper consideration of evidence of wrongdoing.” The bill also indicated that inflated damage awards “create an improper resolution of civil justice claims” that can lead to increased litigation costs and higher insurance premiums.
Trial Court Caps Simpkins Award
The trial court applied the law’s caps on the $3.5 million of noneconomic damages, reducing it to $350,000. Coupled with the $150,000 for future economic damages, the trial court awarded Jessica Simpkins $500,000 and her father $75,000. Both the church and the Simpkinses appealed the judgment to the Fifth District, which rejected Jessica Simpkins’ constitutional challenges to the damage caps. The appellate court also rejected her argument that if the caps stayed in place, she was the victim of two occurrences, subject to separate $350,000 awards.
The Supreme Court accepted Simpkins’ appeal of her constitutional challenges and also the claim that she was the victim of two occurrences.
Constitutional Challenges Rejected
While there are mentions of both the U.S. and Ohio constitutions in Simpkins’ claims, her arguments relate to the Ohio Constitution. Justice French wrote that the Court, in its 2007 Arbino v. Johnson & Johnson decision, rejected the argument that the caps in R.C. 2315.18 are unconstitutional on their face. However, Simpkins argued that the law, as applied to minors who are the victims of sexual assault, violates her state constitutional rights to a trial by jury, to an open court, to a remedy, due process, and equal protection.
Justice French concluded that Simpkins’ arguments on three of the four constitutional claims are no different than the ones the Court rejected in Arbino. However, the Court found a distinction with Simpkins’ due process argument.
Emotional Injuries Raise Due Process Questions
The “due course of law” provision of the Ohio Constitution’s Article I, Section 16, is regarded to be generally the same as the U.S. Constitution’s due process clause. Justice French wrote that when a law is challenged on due-process grounds and the law does not restrict the exercise of a fundamental right, courts apply a “rational-basis” test, which finds the law is constitutional if it is reasonably related to a legitimate governmental interest.
Justice French explained in passing S.B. 80, the General Assembly reviewed evidence and found that the uncertainty of the civil-litigation system was harming the economy and that noneconomic damages are inherently subjective and easily tainted by irrelevant considerations. The logical conclusion was that the uncertain and subjective system for evaluating noneconomic damages was having a negative impact on the state’s civil justice system, she wrote. The Court concluded in Arbino the caps were rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest and did not violate the state constitution.
Simpkins argued the conclusion in Arbino about the relationship between the public welfare and the caps does not extend to minors who are victims of sexual assault because those victims rarely suffer any economic injury and typically do not suffer any of the permanent physical injuries that are not subjected to the caps. She argued a minor suffers catastrophic nonphysical injuries from a sexual assault and the law is unreasonable and arbitrary because it distinguishes between physical and nonphysical catastrophic injuries.
Justice French noted the General Assembly made a choice to distinguish between those suffering from the physical injuries specified in R.C. 2315.18(B)(3) and those who suffer other injuries. The legislature lifted the caps because the specified injuries “offer more concrete evidence of noneconomic damages and thus calculation of those damages poses a lesser risk of being tainted by improper external considerations,” she explained.
“In the end, R.C. 2315.18 does not affect Simpkins any differently than it affects any other victim whose injuries do not fall within the R.C. 2315.18(B)(3) exceptions to the damage caps,” she wrote.
Justice French noted the Fifth District acknowledged there may be cases where the effects of nonphysical injuries may approximate those of the specified physical injuries, and in those instances, the damages cap might be arbitrary and unreasonable. She concluded Simpkins’ injuries do not meet the “extreme qualifications” that the General Assembly required in order to avoid the damages cap.
She wrote that Dr. Jeffrey Smalldon, a psychologist who examined Simpkins, testified that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and low-grade depression as a result of the assault by Williams. However, Justice French noted other evidence indicated “Simpkins played basketball in high school and college, got good grades in college, is currently employed full-time, has not sought or participated in mental health treatment or counseling since 2008, and does not have current plans to seek treatment.”
Justice French concluded the Court does not doubt the seriousness of the emotional and psychological damage Simpkins suffered, but the noneconomic injuries do not meet the extreme qualifications the law requires to lift the damage caps.
Finding Was Result of Single Occurrence
While Simpkins argued she suffered injuries for two separate occurrences, the trial court found the injuries arose from “a single course of wrongful conduct at the same time and place,” which constituted a single occurrence and entitled Simpkins to one award of $350,000. Justice French noted that Simpkins’ argument that there were two separate occurrences was based on Williams’ convictions for two separate, distinct, criminal counts for the forced intercourse.
Justice French explained the cap is limited to “all claims” resulting from any one bodily injury, and there is no evidence that Williams’ separate criminal acts affected Simpkins differently. She noted Dr. Smalldon’s evaluation found Simpkins’ post-traumatic stress disorder was the direct result of “the incident” with Williams. The Court concluded it was appropriate to apply a single noneconomic-damage cap.
Justice Sharon L. Kennedy joined Justice French’s opinion. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Terrence O’Donnell stated they would dismiss the case as improvidently allowed, letting the Fifth District’s decision stand.
Concurring Opinion Questions Analysis
Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger concurred in judgment only. She wrote that the lead opinion bases its analysis on federal constitutional law, while the Court in recent decisions has concluded the Ohio Constitution can provide broader protection than its federal counterpart, particularly for juveniles.
Justice Lanzinger noted that the 2016 Court decisions in State v. Bode and State v. Mole found the Ohio Constitution afforded greater rights in certain criminal case circumstances. She wrote, however, that the Court has not held the state constitution provides greater protection to juveniles in tort claims, and Simpkins does “not present a compelling argument for us do to so now.”
Dissent Argues Caps Are Unconstitutional
In his dissent, Justice O’Neill wrote he cannot accept that the damages suffered by a minor rape victim are subjected to a legislatively created formula.
“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,” he wrote.
Justice O’Neill wrote the only way to alter the tort system in Ohio is by state constitutional amendment.
“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,” he wrote.
Justice Pfeifer joined Justice O’Neill’s dissent and dissented separately. Justice Pfeifer, who dissented in Arbino, wrote that “tort reform” was designed to protect doctors and corporate interests, and that in this case the reform has “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,” he wrote. “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.”
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