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Justices: Punitive damages cap, allocation do not violate Indiana Constitution

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The Indiana Supreme Court unanimously reversed a Marion Superior judge’s 2011 decision in a sex-abuse case that held the statutes that cap punitive damages and dictate their allocation violate the Indiana Constitution.

A jury awarded John Doe $150,000 in punitive damages in his lawsuit against Rev. Jonathan Lovill Stewart for childhood sexual abuse. Stewart sought to have those damages reduced to the statutory cap of either three times the amount of the compensatory damages award or $50,000. Marion Superior Judge David Dreyer ruled in 2009 that I.C. 34-51-3-4 and -5 violate Article 3, Section 1 and Article 1, Section 20 of the state Constitution. In 2011, Dreyer issued an order declaring the cap and allocation of damages violated the separation of powers and right to jury.

In State of Indiana v. John Doe, 49S00-1201-CT-14, Justice Mark Massa provided historical background on punitive damages in Indiana and the statutes that provide the cap and allocation of damages. Under Indiana law, the victim will receive 25 percent of the damages with the remaining 75 percent going into the Violent Crime Victims Compensation Fund.

Massa pointed to Johnson v. St. Vincent Hosp. Inc., 273 Ind. 374, 381, 404 N.E.2d 585, 591 (1980), and Cheatham v. Pohle, 789 N.E.2d 467, 473 (Ind. 2003), as requiring the justices to uphold the cap and allocation provisions at issue here.

“Doe has offered no meaningful reason, and we can conceive none, why a punitive damages cap is so materially different from a compensatory damages cap as to render the former unconstitutional when the latter is not. Rather, we agree with the State that, as we have said before, the jury’s determination of the amount of punitive damages is not the sort of ‘finding of fact’ that implicates the right to jury trial under our state constitution,” Massa wrote.

In addition, the cap doesn’t offend the separation of powers. In civil litigation, “Just as the legislative branch has broad power to limit common law causes of action and remedies, including punitive damages, the judicial branch has sole authority to apply those limitations to particular cases,” Massa continued. “The cap is a public policy judgment that punitive damages in civil cases should not exceed a certain amount. As such, it is no different from a public policy judgment that the penalty for Class C felony child molesting, for example, is imprisonment for between two and eight years.”

The justices held that I.C. 34-51-3-4, -5 and -6 do not violate Article 1, Section 20 or Article 3, Section 1 of the Indiana Constitution. They remanded to the trial court to grant Stewart’s motion to reduce the punitive damages to the statutory maximum and order that 75 percent of that award go to the Violent Crime Victim Compensation Fund.

 

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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