Tort Law

Damages cap is unconstitutional as applied to woman sexually abused as a child, top state court rules

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The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that a state cap on noneconomic damages is unconstitutional as applied to a woman who sued her childhood friend’s father for sexually abusing her during sleepovers when she was 11 and 12 years old.

In a Dec. 16 opinion, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld a $134 million damages award that included a $20 million award for noneconomic damages for abuse that happened after the damages cap took effect. A trial judge had trimmed the $20 million to $250,000 under a statutory damages cap for noneconomic loss.

The state supreme court ruled 4-3 against Roy Pompa, who was sentenced to life in prison for sexually abusing the plaintiff and other victims.

The state supreme court said the damages cap as applied to victims such as the plaintiff was unconstitutional under a provision of the Ohio Constitution that guarantees every person the right to a “remedy by due course of law” for injuries done to a person’s “land, goods, person or reputation.”

The Ohio Supreme Court said its ruling applies to “child victims who suffer traumatic, extensive and chronic psychological injury as a result of intentional criminal acts and who sue their abusers for civil damages.”

The Ohio law, which took effect in 2005, provides that damages for noneconomic loss can’t exceed the greater of $250,000 or three times the economic loss, up to $350,000 per plaintiff or a maximum of $500,000 for each occurrence. The law provides for an exception for severe physical injuries.

Noneconomic injuries include pain and suffering, mental anguish and other intangible loss, jurors were told.

The plaintiff who sued Pompa had suffered psychological injuries that led her to have anxiety and become withdrawn and angry. When she became an adult, the plaintiff had trouble keeping jobs, became addicted to heroin and was homeless for a year.

The law as applied to people such as the plaintiff was unconstitutional, the Ohio Supreme Court said.

“For this limited class of litigants—people like [the plaintiff] 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,” the Ohio Supreme Court said.

Damages caps were enacted because of fears that frivolous negligence lawsuits were increasing the cost of doing business in the state. The concern stemmed from the high cost of general liability insurance. But the ban on noneconomic damages as applied to people such as the plaintiff has little or no connection to improving the courts system in Ohio, the state supreme court said.

Insurance coverage for the types of injuries suffered by the plaintiff is extremely uncommon, the Ohio Supreme Court said. Most policies now contain exclusions for intentional conduct and specifically for abuse or molestation.

“Thus, the only beneficiary of the General Assembly’s damages cap in this case is [the victim’s] abuser, not the public and not the insurance industry,” the state supreme court said in the opinion by Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

The case is Brandt v. Pompa.

Publications covering the decision include Court News Ohio and the Associated Press.

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