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Ohio Supreme Court rules against cap in Child Sex Abuse cases

An Ohio Supreme Court decision ruled that the cap on "non-economic damages" is unconstitutional and should not apply to child victims of abuse.
Photo by Krisanapong Detraphiphat/Getty Images

The Ohio Supreme Court said child victims deal with enough pain and suffering without having their monetary damages capped in court cases.

A 4-3 decision from the court ruled that limits on “noneconomic damages” shouldn’t be applied to youth victims who “suffer traumatic, extensive and chronic psychological injury as a result of intentional criminal acts and who sue their abusers for civil damages.”

In deciding the case, the court allowed a $134 million award based on a 2007 sexual abuse case, which includes $20 million for “mental health injuries” caused by the abuser in the case.

Roy Pompa was convicted in May 2007 on more than 90 charges related to the sexual abuse he committed on a friend of his daughter’s. Pompa was sentenced to life in prison without parole, but a $20 million award meant to go to the sex abuse survivor would have been capped at $250,000 under state law passed in 2005.

That law limited “noneconomic” damages, and in this case would have set the cap on the damages because the survivor had “severe psychological injury,” not “permanent physical injuries.”

The survivor testified in lower court that after she was abused, she grew up to become addicted to drugs and attempted suicide as she continued to have panic attacks as a result of the trauma from her abuse. She’s been in counseling for 14 years and “she testified that she could not foresee a time when she would not need counseling,” the supreme court decision stated.

The court majority said the cap was unconstitutional when applied to sexually abused children because it “overlooked a small class of plaintiffs who are arbitrarily excluded from recovering the full amount” of damages from a jury.

“For this limited class of litigants — people like (the survivor in the Pompa case) who were victimized at a very young age and who bring civil actions to recover damages from the persons who have been found guilty of those intentional criminal acts — the constitutional guarantee of due course of law is unjustly withheld,” Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote for the majority.

Dissenting with the majority court’s ruling that the Ohio law violated due process protections, Justices Sharon Kennedy, Patrick Fischer, and Patrick DeWine said while the abuse the survivor suffered was “appalling,” “as members of the third branch of government, we must ‘temper our empathy’ and resolve legal matters within the confines of the law.”

The dissenters said the Ohio General Assembly enacted “tort reform” laws, laws that regulate monetary claims in civil lawsuits, “to protect the Ohio economy from the increasing number of tort claims being filed and the increasing amounts of the damages being awarded in those claims, both of which were negatively impacting the cost of doing business in the state, threatening Ohio jobs, driving up consumer costs and stifling innovation.”

“This is a reasonable and legitimate government interest, and the General Assembly has not arbitrarily selected winners and losers under the statute,” the justices in dissent wrote.

The Ohio legislature was worried about “inflated damage awards” when they passed the legislation, calling the non-economic damages “inherently subjective” and possibly influenced by “improper consideration of evidence of wrongdoing,” according to the court records.

The state supreme court is not the venue to decide whether or not to cap injuries in civil cases, the dissenters said. While sex abuse victims “are worthy of protection and compensation,” the justices in the minority said, the General Assembly is “the ultimate arbiter of public policy.”

“By resolving the merits of this case, the majority opinion improperly involves the judiciary in matters that belong exclusively and fundamentally to the General Assembly,” they wrote. “It is this type of result-oriented judicial activism that blurs the line in the public’s eye about which branch of government is truly responsible for the policies of this state.”

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