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Judges disagree on punitive damages award

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The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a compensatory damage award today for a couple that was attacked, but the majority remanded the trial court's punitive damage award because it was excessive.

In James G. Clark and Larry A. Biddle III v. Donald and Janet Simbeck, No. 71A03-0801-CV-5, James Clark and Larry Biddle attacked Donald and Janet Simbeck after Donald stopped his car to question why the two had followed them closely in their car and driven recklessly around them.

Donald was hit in the head more than 30 times; Janet was struck once. Clark and Biddle pleaded guilty to two felony counts of battery resulting in serious injury and one misdemeanor count of battery.

A bench trial on the damages resulted in a compensatory award to Donald for $738,500; Janet received $26,000. The couple also received punitive damages of $60,000 each.

Clark and Biddle appealed, arguing the trial court erred in denying their motion for a continuance. The Court of Appeals affirmed because Clark and Biddle delayed hiring replacement counsel after their original attorney withdrew his appearance until the Friday before the trial was set to start, wrote Senior Judge George B. Hoffman.

The trial court's suggestion Clark and Biddle consider waiving the liability issue and proceed with a bench trial on damages didn't prejudice the two, the appellate court ruled. Clark and Biddle weren't forced or intimidated into waiving their jury trial, nor does Indiana's Comparative Fault Act apply in this case because the two didn't make a claim Donald failed to mitigate his damages, wrote the judge.

The Court of Appeals found given the severe pain and injury caused upon Donald because of the attack, the compensatory award was not excessive. However, the appellate court reversed the punitive damages award for the couple because the trial court didn't consider Clark and Biddle's financial condition and ability in ordering them to pay $60,000 in punitive damages to each of the victims. The Court of Appeals remanded for the trial court to determine the amount of punitive damages, if any, reflective of Clark and Biddle's financial status.

Chief Judge John Baker dissented only regarding the punitive damages, finding Clark and Biddle's conduct on the night they attacked the Simbecks to be "so egregious, so malicious, and so brutal that the relatively nominal punitive damages award of $60,000 is warranted."

The appellate court also denied the Simbecks' request for damages and attorney fees because Clark and Biddle's appeal wasn't frivolous or in bad faith.

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