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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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