COA: CVRA damages are distinct from punitive damages

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a damages award pursuant to the Crime Victim Relief Act after the court found in its second hearing of a case that CVRA damages are distinct from common law punitive damages.

Rachel Staggs sold property to Corena Buxbaum and said the septic system was not defective, she did not know the condition of the septic tank and there were no moisture or water problems in the basement. After purchasing the property, Buxbaum looked for the septic system and found there was none and instead sewage was expelled through a pipe at the back of the property. She also found a leak in the basement, which her moisture company said had been leaking for years.

Buxbaum filed a complaint against Staggs alleging fraudulent misrepresentation. The trial court found in favor of Buxbaum that Staggs had knowledge of the defects in the basement and septic system prior to filling out the disclosure form and that it was not an error on Staggs’ part in not reporting it. The court awarded Buxbaum damages for out-of-pocket costs of $21,939.58; treble damages of $65,818.74; and attorney fees of $7,040, for a total damages award of $94,798.32.

On the first appeal, Staggs v. Buxbaum (Staggs I), 47A01-1406-PL-254, the appellate court ruled an additional finding of criminal culpability was required for treble damages and that the trial court miscalculated in awarding the total damages, which should be a maximum of $72,858.74. The trial court then ruled on remand that Buxbaum is entitled to recover $21,939.59 in her actual costs and expenses and $7040 in her attorney fees, plus treble damages of an additional $43,879.18 for a total award of $72,858.77. Staggs appealed.

On appeal in the instant case, Staggs argued damages under the CVRA are discretionary and must be awarded pursuant to a clear and convincing evidence standard because of the Punitive Damages Act. She also argued the treble damages award was clearly erroneous, saying the issue was whether the punitive aspect of CVRA liability was warranted.

“Ind. Code § 34-24-3-3 provides that a person may not recover both punitive damages and damages under the CVRA, which provides further support for the conclusion that CVRA damages are distinct from common law punitive damages,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote.

Staggs also argued the award of damages was clearly erroneous, but the COA disagreed on that point as well. Brown wrote the trial court found Staggs acted in a “heinous and criminally culpable manner.”

Staggs also claimed the decision was erroneous because she represented herself pro se in the second day of trial because her attorney, Philip Chamberlain, had his license suspended between the first and second days of trial.  Brown wrote that she did not have to proceed without a lawyer but chose to do so anyway.

The case is Rachel Staggs v. Corena Buxbaum, 47A04-1510-PL-1758.

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