IBJNews

Indiana Supreme Court considers punitive damage cap

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

A top state attorney defended Indiana's punitive damages law Thursday against claims that it renders trials meaningless by forcing judges to reduce awards in lawsuits without telling jurors.

Solicitor General Thomas Fisher asked the Indiana Supreme Court to overturn a Marion County judge's decision that found the law treads on judicial independence and violates the right to trial by jury guaranteed in the state constitution.

The judge refused to reduce a $150,000 punitive damages award to a man who claimed his uncle, a Roman Catholic priest, sexually abused him when he was 17. The judge had told jurors they could consider the priest's "reprehensible conduct" when they decided on damages.

Under Indiana law, juries in civil cases can award punitive damages of up to three times the amount of compensatory damages they decide on, but there is a $50,000 cap. The state gets a three-quarters share, which goes to a fund that helps victims of violent crime.

In this case, jurors gave the man $50,000 in compensatory damages and awarded triple punitive damages for a total of $200,000.

The priest appealed the punitive damages award, citing the $50,000 limit, but the judge rejected his appeal, saying the cap violated the state constitution. The state then intervened, seeking its 75-percent share. The judge denied the state's request, and the state appealed.

Patrick Noaker, who represents the man called John Doe in court documents, told the justices that secretly reducing the amount jurors decide to award plaintiffs after hearing the evidence infringes on the principle of trial by jury.

"It's a charade. It's a complete charade," Noaker said. He added, "We have to let the jury make a decision and whether we agree with it or not, we have to live with that decision."

Fisher disagreed, saying jurors don't necessarily need to know about the cap.

"The idea that the Legislature doesn't want to confuse jury deliberations with the knowledge that there is some sort of cap is based on the idea that they don't want the jury to be somehow misguided by that extraneous fact," he said. "So what they're doing is setting up a process — a step by step process — designed to keep the jury insulated from extraneous information and at the same afford the appropriate timing for the cap to be in place."

Justice Robert Rucker questioned that reasoning.

"The problem with this statute, isn't it that it puts a cap and then it says once the jury deliberates, once the jury returns its verdicts after hearing all the evidence and awards punitive damages, you, mister trial court and judge, you are now instructed to reduce those damages," Rucker said. "It seems to me that that's part of the problem at least in terms of the separation of powers."

Noaker said it would have been within the Legislature's power to completely bar punitive damages, or to have judges instruct jurors to limit their awards, but not to compel judges to reduce those amounts after the jury makes a decision.

Fisher, however, maintained that the issue was one of public policy, not legal procedure.

"This court has recognized time and again that when it comes to public policy decisions, the judiciary must yield to the legislative judgment," he said.

The dispute stems from a civil trial held in 2008. Doe and other witnesses testified that his uncle, who was a priest, had sexually abused Doe on two occasions when he was a teenager. Child protection workers substantiated the report, but took no action, and the county prosecutor declined to file charges, according to court documents. Doe later filed a lawsuit against the priest.

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
 
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. I think the poster was being sarcastic and only posting or making fun of what is usually posted on here about anything being built in BR or d'town for that matter.

  2. Great news IRL fans: TURBO the IMS sanctioned movie about slugs running the Indy 500 has caught the Securities and Exchange Commission because Dreamworks had to take a $132MILLION write down...because the movie was such a flop. See, the Indy/IMS magic soiled another pair of drawers. Bwahahahahahaha! How's CARTOWN doing? HAHAHAHA...Indy is for losers.

  3. So disappointed in WIBC. This is the last straw to lose a good local morning program. I used to be able to rely on WIBC to give me good local information, news, weather and traffic on my 45 minute commute.Two incidents when I needed local, accurate information regarding severe weather were the first signs I could not now rely on WIBC. I work weekend 12 hour nights for a downtown hospital. This past winter when we had the worst snowfall in my 50 years of life, I came home on a Sunday morning, went to sleep (because I was to go back in Sunday night for another 12 hour shift), and woke up around 1 p.m. to a house with no electricity. I keep an old battery powered radio around and turned on WIBC to see what was going on with the winter storm and the roads and the power outage. Sigh. Only policital stuff. Not even a break in to update on the winter storm warning. The second weather incident occurred when I was driving home during a severe thunderstorm a few months ago. I had already gotten a call from my husband that a tornado warning was just southwest of where I had been. I turned to WIBC to find out what direction the storm was headed so I could figure out a route home, only to find Rush on the air, and again, no breaking away from this stupidity to give me information. Thank God for my phone, which gave me the warning that I was driving in an area where a tornado was seen. Thanks for nothing WIBC. Good luck to you, Steve! We need more of you and not the politics of hatred that WIBC wants to shove at us. Good thing I have Satellite radio.

  4. I read the retail roundup article and tried Burritos and Beers tonight. I'm glad I did, for the food was great. Fresh authentic Mexican food. Great seasoning on the carne asada. A must try!!! Thanks for sharing.

  5. John, unfortunately CTRWD wants to put the tank(s) right next to a nature preserve and at the southern entrance to Carmel off of Keystone. Not exactly the kind of message you want to send to residents and visitors (come see our tanks as you enter our city and we build stuff in nature preserves...

ADVERTISEMENT