Tort Reform Protects Rapists

The Ohio Supreme Court upheld a severe reduction of compensatory damages awarded to a minor in Ohio who was the victim of two rapes.  In Simpkins v. Grace Brethren Church of Delaware, Ohio, the Court ruled the cap on noneconomic damages in tort actions is constitutional when applied to a minor.   Jessica Simpkins was the victim of a vaginal rape and an oral rape.  At the time of the rapes, she was 15 years old.  The jury awarded Jessica Simpkins $3,651,378.85 in compensatory economic and non-economic damages.  Ms. Simpkins’ compensatory damages were reduced to $500,000.00 after the statutory cap was applied.  Grace Brethren Church received a substantial discount on the damages it was required to pay Ms. Simpkins.  The economic cost of its negligence was reduced as a result of tort reform.

The perpetrator of these rapes was Brian Williams, a pastor at Sunbury Grace Brethren Church.  Grace Brethren Church of Delaware employed and supervised  Pastor Williams.  The church had knowledge of prior inappropriate sexual misconduct by Pastor Williams but helped him establish the Sunbury Grace Brethren Church despite this knowledge.  He was the head pastor at Sunbury Grace. He pled guilty to two counts of sexual battery in the criminal case against him and was sentenced to two consecutive four-year prison terms.  

The Ohio Supreme Court set forth the legislature’s justifications for tort reform in the opinion. “In support of those reforms, the General Assembly recognized the state’s interest in ‘a fair, predictable system of civil justice’ that preserves the rights of injured parties while curbing frivolous lawsuits, which increase the costs of doing business, threaten Ohio jobs, drive up consumer costs, and may hinder innovation. S.B. 80, Section 3(A)(3), 150 Ohio Laws, Part V, 8024.”  (¶ 2.)   Further, the Court noted:

In limiting the recovery of damages for noneconomic loss, the General Assembly noted that awards for pain and suffering ‘are inherently subjective’ and that noneconomic damages may be inflated by ‘improper consideration of evidence of wrongdoing.’ S.B. 80, Section 3(A)(6)(d), 150 Ohio Laws, Part V, 8028. It further stated that ‘[i]nflated damage awards create an improper resolution of civil justice claims,’ leading to increased litigation costs and insurance premiums. S.B. 80, Section 3(A)(6)(e), 150 Ohio Laws, Part V, 8028.  (¶ 6.) 

Thus, the Ohio Legislature decided businesses had more rights than the individual and the Ohio Supreme Court held this determination was constitutional.  In Ohio, citizens are denied their full compensatory damages while businesses are granted decreased business costs.  “In enacting S.B. 80, the General Assembly reviewed evidence demonstrating that uncertainty related to the civil-litigation system was harming the economy[.]”  (¶ 37.) 

The Legislature and the Supreme Court both agree it is better for them to decide what damages are appropriate to compensate an individual rather than allow a jury to determine damages.   None of the legislators or the justices ever met Jessica Simpkins or sat on the jury which awarded her the compensatory damages.  

Reading the Court’s description of Ms. Simpkins’ life (she played basketball, got good grades in college, is employed full-time, and not currently receiving counseling), Ms. Simpkins may appear to be a functional individual. She may have serious emotional damages that were evident to the jury, but not evident to the Ohio Supreme Court.  The jury was in the best position to decide the extent of her noneconomic damages.  The answers to many questions were not apparent from the Court’s opinion: How has her experience affected her ability to form emotional relationships with others?  Is she afraid to have children because she feels she will not be able to protect them?  How have her religious beliefs been affected?  Does she cry often?  Does she have nightmares?  Is she afraid to be alone with a man in a room?  How does she feel when she sees a violent rape on TV?  Was she trembling in the courtroom?  Can she make eye contact with strangers?  The answers to these questions are unknown to the Ohio Supreme Court and were unknown to the legislature when tort reform was passed three years before the rapes occurred.

The jury who heard the testimony in the case determined Jessica Simpkins was entitled to $151,378.85 in economic damages and $3,500,000.00 in noneconomic damages.  Tort reform requires the jury to answer questions to categorize the damages.  Once the jury completed their duty, the trial court determined the amount of damages to which Ms. Simpkins was entitled under tort reform.  The statute imposes a limit on noneconomic compensatory damages of $250,000.00 or three times economic damages, whichever is greater, but, no more than $350,000.00 can be awarded to any one person for each occurrence.  The Court determined the two rapes were one occurrence, even though Williams was convicted of two separate counts of sexual battery in the criminal proceedings against him.

These damage limits do not apply to compensatory damages if the injured person suffers a “permanent and substantial physical deformity, loss of use of a limb, or loss of a bodily organ system” or a”permanent physical functional injury that permanently prevents the injured person from being able to independently care for self and perform life-sustaining activities.”  One must not get too excited about the exceptions.  As noted by the Court, a complete loss of sight in one eye was not the loss of a bodily organ system because the injured person was partially able to see out of the other eye. (¶ 43.)  The same reasoning does not apply under the statute to a loss of a limb.  Having use of only one limb entitles an individual to receive all of the damages awarded by the jury while being able to see only partially out of one eye does not entitle an individual to receive all the damages awarded by the jury.

The severe limitation on the compensatory damages awarded to Jessica Simpkins is not and will not be the only instance in which a victim is stripped of a large portion of the damages awarded. These damages are awarded by the citizens of the State of Ohio.  Apparently, the Ohio Legislature and Supreme Court do not believe citizens are able to determine appropriate damages suffered by victims and must substitute their own judgment so that businesses are harmed.