COLUMBUS DISPATCH – LAW CUTS DAMAGES AWARDED TO SEX-ASSAULT VICTIM
By: Laura Arenschield
DELAWARE, Ohio – A jury decided in June that a 21-year-old woman, sexually assaulted by her pastor when she was 15, should get upwards of $3.6 million for the post-traumatic stress she’d endured in the years since he attacked her.
Because of a state law that went into effect in 2005, though, she’ll get less than a sixth of that amount.
A judge ruled in Delaware County Common Pleas Court this week that the woman could receive no more than $500,000 because of the state’s limit on compensatory damages for emotional stress in civil cases. The limit was a key element of an effort to rein in lawsuits, a priority of Republicans’ in the state legislature in the mid-2000s. Critics of the caps accused the Republicans of targeting trial lawyers, a group of donors to political campaigns that leaned toward Democrats.
The woman’s attorney, John Fitch, said the law and the outcome of the woman’s lawsuit are “a moral outrage.”
“We don’t need to protect people who cause or contribute to children being raped,” Fitch said. ” And that’s exactly what this statute does.”
In the years since she was assaulted by the head pastor of her church during a counseling session, the woman has struggled with post-traumatic stress and other emotional problems, Fitch said. The Dispatch does not typically identify victims of sexual crimes.
The pastor, Brian L. Williams, forced her to perform sexual acts with him in his church office, according to court records from his trial. Williams, now 50, pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual battery in 2008 and is serving an eight-year sentence. He is being held at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution.
It wasn’t the first time Williams had been accused of being sexually inappropriate with young women at one of his churches, the woman and her father said in their lawsuit. They sued Grace Brethren Church of Delaware, which supervised Williams, saying the church knew about the previous allegations but continued to support Williams and allowed him to counsel young women. The woman and her family had previously settled with the other church, Grace Brethren Church of Sunbury, for $90,000.
The jury in June agreed that the Delaware church should have done more to protect the woman, and it awarded her more than $3.6 million: $150,000 for future money she would not earn because of the assault, and $3.5 million for “non-economic loss,” which includes things such as post-traumatic stress and emotional duress.
On Monday, though, visiting Common Pleas Judge Richard M. Markus handed down an order that said the state law on damages limits the amount the woman could receive. He ordered that she be paid $500,000, which includes the $150,000 the jury awarded for earnings she won’t get in the future and $350,000 for emotional damages – the maximum amount for “non-economic” damages allowed under the law.
“It’s an outrage,” Fitch said of the cap. “We end up protecting the pockets of all kinds of people who do bad things, very bad things.”
Fitch said the cap on damages does not protect victims like his client. Instead, it protects insurance companies that cover churches such as Grace Brethren that are found negligent.
The 2005 law does not limit the amount a person can be awarded in a civil suit for economic losses or for permanent physical injuries.
Kirk Schuring, a Republican state representative from Canton who was in the Ohio Senate in 2005, said the limits on lawsuits were intended to give businesses, insurance companies and individuals an idea of the maximum amounts they could be forced to pay for emotional damages in a civil lawsuit. Before the caps, juries could award as much as they saw fit.
“This particular case has specifics that obviously are very heart-wrenching,” Schuring said. ” But, in general terms, (the law) was to allow businesses to be competitive, to go out there and try to offer the best possible product and service without having to clear the open-endedness of noneconomic damages.
“I don’t know how you assign a dollar amount to emotion,” he said. “There’s probably never going to be an adequate dollar amount. And $500,000 is not a small sum of money. … And who’s to say that $3.6 million is enough? Why not $36 million?”
Gauging the amount of money a person loses because of a sexual assault is nearly impossible, said Rick Topper, a veteran Columbus lawyer and member of the Ohio Association for Justice, which opposed the caps on compensatory damages. Because the woman in this case was 15 when she was assaulted, there is no telling how much she could have earned had she not been attacked, Topper said. And because she had no permanent physical injuries, that section of the law did not apply to her, either.
“I feel really bad for anybody in this situation that has a legitimate case and something like this happens,” Topper said.