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Judge: punitive-damage cap unconstitutional

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A Marion County judge has refused to reduce damages in a priest sex-abuse case, saying the punitive damage caps put in place more than a decade ago are unconstitutional.

Marion Superior Judge David Dreyer issued a 20-page ruling Friday in John Doe v. Father Jonathan Lovill Stewart, No. 49D10-0402-CT-0443. The decision came in the case of a Greene County man, who claimed that as a 10-year-old boy the Catholic priest molested him between 1993 and 1997. A jury in April 2008 awarded $5,000 in compensatory damages and $150,000 in punitive damages, the latter that would have been reduced to $50,000.

State statute amended in 1995 says that punitive damages can't be more than three times the compensatory award or $50,000, whichever is greater.

The priest's attorney had asked the court to reduce the punitive damages to that $50,000 mark, but Doe argued that the cap is unconstitutional and that it doesn't apply to his case because the molestation acts started in 1993 before the statute was in effect.

Judge Dreyer determined the statute isn't retroactive, but more significantly that it violates the Indiana Constitution with respect to separation of powers and right to trial by jury - the legislative move to limit the jury's verdict goes against a person's constitutional right to trial by jury, he wrote.

"The Indiana Constitution protects each branch of government from interference with each other, and further guarantees Indiana citizens will have their civil cases decided by a jury," he wrote. "The Statute's two provisions ... interpose the will of the General Assembly to supersede otherwise valid verdicts. Accordingly, it contradicts the Indiana Constitution and should not interfere with Doe's punitive damage award."

While other states' constitutional language and setups may allow limits on punitive damages, the judge said Indiana's does not. This statute "materially burdens" the state's core values and is an inadequate substitute for what the framers envisioned in the state constitution.

"Our scrupulous guard against encroachment only allows one finding: the Statute impermissibly alienates Indiana's guarantee to trial by jury, and its nullification is rational and necessary," Judge Dreyer wrote.

More coverage on this case and legal issue will be in the March 18-31, 2009, issue of Indiana Lawyer.

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