Young Rape Survivor Denied Justice by Legislative Damage Caps in Ohio

In 2008, when Jessica Simpkins was only 15 years old, she sought the counsel and support of her minister Brian Williams, the senior pastor of Sunbury Grace Brethren Church in Ohio.  Rather than helping her, the pastor raped her.  Williams was convicted of two counts of sexual battery and sentenced to two four-year prison terms. Jessica’s parents sued the church and a local jury awarded her and her family $3.6 million in damages.

The church appealed the amount and the appellate court ruled that the amount should be reduced to $250,000. The Ohio Supreme Court recently affirmed the appellate decision.

In their brief, the Simpkins argued that the cap 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.

The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the damages cap. Not all the justices on the court went along with the majority opinion however. 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.

In his dissenting opinion, 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. . . .

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.

Justice Pfeifer joined Justice O’Neill’s dissent and dissented separately. Justice Pfeifer wrote that “tort reform” was designed to protect doctors and corporate interests, and that in this case the reform has “unintended consequences.” He explained:

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.

The Ohio decision stripped the jury of its power to decide how best to administer justice based on the facts presented to it. The dissenting justices both recognized the damages cap for what it is – the Ohio legislature’s unconstitutional interference with the civil court system and the rule of law we use to resolve disputes. Our civil justice system can only work when the other branches of government respect it and do not encroach upon it.

 

Dumas Law Group has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, California, and other states.

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