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.