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Ohio Supreme Court Upholds Damage Caps As Applied To The Sexual Assault Of A Minor

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By Holly Marie Wilson, Esq.

December 27, 2016

Except for certain limited circumstances, Ohio law limits, or caps, the maximum amount a person can recover for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering. The Ohio Supreme Court recently upheld this limitation of damages in a case involving the sexual assault of a minor.

R.C. § 2315.18(B)(2) establishes a cap on compensatory tort damages for “noneconomic loss,” which includes, but is not limited to, “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.” R.C. § 1315.18(A)(4).  

The amount of compensatory damage for noneconomic loss in Ohio is capped at the greater of $250,000 or an amount that is equal to three times the economic loss, as determined by the jury, not to exceed $350,000 per plaintiff or a maximum of $500,000 for each occurrence that is the basis of the tort action. R.C. § 2315.18(B)(2).

The damage caps do not apply, however, 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.” R.C. § 2315.18(B)(3).

In Simpkins v. Grace Brethren Church of Delaware, Ohio, Slip Opinion 2016-Ohio-8118, the Supreme Court of Ohio held that Ohio’s tort reform caps were constitutional when applied to a case brought on behalf of minor who was the victim of a sexual assault. As a result, the Court affirmed the reduction of a $3.6 million jury verdict in favor of Jessica Simpkins to $500,000.

Jessica and her father brought a lawsuit against their church and former church leaders alleging that a senior pastor of the church sexually assaulted Jessica when she was 15 years old. The pastor was convicted of two counts of sexual battery and sentenced to two four-year prison terms. At trial, Jessica was awarded $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.

Applying the tort reform damage caps to the $3.5 million noneconomic damages award, the trial court reduced the verdict 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 Simpkins family appealed the judgment.

On appeal, Jessica and her father argued that the tort reform caps on noneconomic damages were unconstitutional when applied 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 Court rejected this argument, finding that 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.

Supporting its decision, the Court pointed to evidence elicited during the trial which indicated that despite a diagnosis of depression and PTSD, Jessica “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.” Based upon these findings, the Court concluded that Jessica did not meet the “extreme qualifications” that the General Assembly requires in order to set-aside the damages cap.

The Court also upheld the finding that Jessica’s injuries arose from “a single course of wrongful conduct at the same time and place” which constituted a single occurrence and only entitled Jessica to one award of $350,000 – despite the argument that there were two separate occurrences based on the perpetrator’s convictions for two separate, distinct, criminal counts for the assault. The Court explained that the cap is limited to “all claims” resulting from any one bodily injury, and there is no evidence that the perpetrator’s separate criminal acts affected Jessica differently so as to constitute two separate occurrences.

While the Court’s decision in Simpkins offers strong support for the continued application and enforcement of Ohio’s damage caps, especially in cases concerning sexual assault, it should be noted that the Court’s decision was far from unanimous. The plurality opinion included two votes in favor of the decision, one concurring opinion in judgment only with a separate opinion, two dissents, and two votes to dismiss the appeal as improvidently allowed.

For more information about this decision, or if you have any questions regarding compensatory and punitive damages in the context of General Liability or Clergy & Faith-Based Institution Liability, please contact one of our Practice Group Leaders.

This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.               THIS IS AN ADVERTISEMENT