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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. Linda, I sure hope you are not seeking a law license, for such eighteenth century sentiments could result in your denial in some jurisdictions minting attorneys for our tolerant and inclusive profession.

  2. Mazel Tov to the newlyweds. And to those bakers, photographers, printers, clerks, judges and others who will lose careers and social standing for not saluting the New World (Dis)Order, we can all direct our Two Minutes of Hate as Big Brother asks of us. Progress! Onward!

  3. My daughter was taken from my home at the end of June/2014. I said I would sign the safety plan but my husband would not. My husband said he would leave the house so my daughter could stay with me but the case worker said no her mind is made up she is taking my daughter. My daughter went to a friends and then the friend filed a restraining order which she was told by dcs if she did not then they would take my daughter away from her. The restraining order was not in effect until we were to go to court. Eventually it was dropped but for 2 months DCS refused to allow me to have any contact and was using the restraining order as the reason but it was not in effect. This was Dcs violating my rights. Please help me I don't have the money for an attorney. Can anyone take this case Pro Bono?

  4. If justice is not found in a court room, it's time to clean house!!! Even judges are accountable to a higher Judge!!!

  5. The small claims system, based on my recent and current usage of it, is not exactly a shining example of justice prevailing. The system appears slow and clunky and people involved seem uninterested in actually serving justice within a reasonable time frame. Any improvement in accountability and performance would gain a vote from me. Speaking of voting, what do the people know about judges and justice from the bench perspective. I think they have a tendency to "vote" for judges based on party affiliation or name coolness factor (like Stoner, for example!). I don't know what to do in my current situation other than grin and bear it, but my case is an example of things working neither smoothly, effectively nor expeditiously. After this experience I'd pay more to have the higher courts hear the case -- if I had the money. Oh the conundrum.

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