Ohio court rejects caps on damages in some child rape cases
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A woman repeatedly raped as a child is eligible for millions of dollars in additional compensation because a state cap on pain-and-suffering awards is unconstitutional as applied to cases like hers, a divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Because the cap was a deterrent to pursuing civil cases against attackers, the ruling could lead to more such lawsuits and help other survivors of child sex abuse, her attorney said.
At issue was a Cuyahoga County judge’s 2020 decision to cut a portion of a $20 million jury verdict to $250,000. That decision was based on a 2005 law meant to limit the size of awards in lawsuits.
The same jury also had awarded the woman $114 million — $14 million for pain-and-suffering for rapes that occurred before that law took effect, and $100 million in punitive damages.
In its 4-3 ruling reinstating the $20 million verdict, the state’s high court said the law was unconstitutional as applied to child victims of intentional crimes, such as sex abuse, who sue their convicted offenders. The court found the cap unreasonable because it didn’t include an exception for such plaintiffs who suffered permanent and severe psychological injuries.
The opinion, written by retiring Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, said “the only beneficiary of the General Assembly’s damages cap in this case is (the woman’s) abuser, not the public.”
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It also noted that the question of whether the woman can actually recover any of the awarded damages from the imprisoned man was irrelevant to the issue of the law’s constitutionality.
One of the woman’s attorneys, John Fitch, said the cap had deterred people from pursuing such civil cases because they can be so expensive to litigate.
“I mean, what are you going to do with a $250,000 cap against someone like Jeffrey Epstein? ... That’s nothing,” Fitch said, referencing the notorious sex crimes case against the now-deceased financier. “You could be drowned in paper for years, with a $250,000 cap.”
More than five years ago, the state Supreme Court cited the same 2005 law, sometimes known as tort reform, when it threw out a $3.6 million jury award to a woman raped by her pastor at age 15. The court reduced the award to about $385,000 based on that law.
Fitch said the Friday ruling in his client’s case against her own attacker could be “a great help” for other survivors of child sexual abuse.
The 2005 law did allow for exceptions to the caps, such as the loss of a limb or an injury from an accident that prevents a person to live independently. That exception should apply to the woman raped as a child, another attorney for her had told the justices during arguments in March.
“The consequences here are so catastrophic that they are certainly more than a permanent scar on the hand or the loss of a finger or the types of things that the statute carves out as exceptions,” the attorney, Robert Peck, argued.
Marion Little, a lawyer representing the woman’s attacker, highlighted that the jury had awarded her $114 million as he argued that she’d had her day in court and she wasn’t “denied a meaningful remedy.” He added that lawmakers crafting the 2005 law anticipated “facts of this nature” by allowing punitive damages without caps.
Messages seeking comment on the court’s ruling were left Friday for Little.
Ohio House Democrats have unsuccessfully proposed legislation targeting the issue that would lift caps on pain-and-suffering awards for child rape victims.
Welsh-Huggins, a longtime reporter at the Associated Press, retired last month.