Weston Hurd Tort Update – December 2016
Prepared By W. Charles Curley
In Simpkins v. Grace Brethren Church of Delaware, 2016–Ohio-8118, decided December 14, 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the constitutionality of Ohio’s damage cap statute insofar as the caps would be enforced against the Plaintiff in the case.
Factual and Legal Background
As part of a broad effort to reform tort law, the Ohio General Assembly in 2005 enacted limits on the amount of “non-economic” damages that can be awarded in tort cases. Non-economic damages include such things as pain and suffering, loss of a spouse’s or child’s consortium, and other intangible losses. Damages for non-economic loss are limited by statute to $250,000 or three times the economic loss (i.e. medical bills, lost income, etc.), up to a maximum of $350,000 for each plaintiff and a maximum $500,000 for each occurrence that is the basis of the lawsuit. In limiting the recovery of damages for noneconomic loss, the General Assembly noted that awards for pain and suffering “are inherently subjective” and that noneconomic damages may be inflated by “improper consideration of evidence of wrongdoing.” Certain exceptions to the cap apply in catastrophic loss cases – where the Plaintiff has suffered a permanent and substantial physical deformity, the loss of limb or loss of an organ system, or for a physical injury that permanently prevents the person from being able to independently care for himself or to perform life-sustaining activities.
In 2013, a Delaware County jury awarded damages of $3.5 million in non-economic damages to a woman who had been raped by her church pastor when she was 15 years old. Applying the statutory cap on non-economic damages, the trial judge reduced the award to $350,000. The Plaintiff appealed, arguing that the statute limiting the amount that can be recovered for non-economic damages was unconstitutional as applied to her. Her principle argument was that the damage cap violated her right to “equal protection of the laws” because the legislature permitted exceptions to the caps for plaintiffs who had sustained catastrophic physical injuries but not for plaintiffs whose injuries were primarily psychological or emotional. In addition, the Plaintiff argued that the damage cap statute unconstitutionally denied her a “meaningful remedy” in court and that the mandatory reduction of the award violated her right to trial by jury.
The Delaware County Court of Appeals rejected that challenge, and the Plaintiff appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Ohio Supreme Court Holding – a 3-2-2 vote
Affirming the holding of the Fifth District Court of Appeals, the Ohio Supreme Court determined that Ohio Rev. Code § 2315.18 did not unconstitutionally discriminate against the Plaintiff. Emphasizing that a previous decision had rejected a “facial” constitutional challenge to R.C. 2315.18, the Simpkins court ruled that the damage cap statute had not been applied unconstitutionally to this Plaintiff.
The Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of the damage cap statute was a 3-2-2 decision, with just three of the Court’s seven justices concurring in the result. Two justices expressed the opinion that the appeal should not have been considered (perhaps because the decision is quite fact-specific and not likely to be used as precedent in other cases). Two other justices wrote blistering dissents, expressing the opinion that the General Assembly did not have the constitutional authority to limit damage awards as it did with the enactment of R.C. 2315.18.
Tort reform in Ohio and other states has always been controversial, with Plaintiff’s lawyers and victims on one side and corporations and insurance companies on the other. Each side has its own deeply-rooted views and sincere considerations with regard to tort reform. While court decisions usually focus, at least on the surface, on whether the legislature had the power and authority to enact the statute in question, the result is often the product of a judge’s view of the wisdom of the statute rather than the constitutional authority of the legislature.
The Court reached the right result in Simpkins – it is the job of the legislature to enact law and the Supreme Court’s job is to interpret it. But recognizing that Simpkins is a sympathetic victim, and the circumstances of her case are tragic, the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the application of a statutory cap on damages could potentially result in some movement on the part of the Ohio General Assembly to change the statute.
If you have any questions about this Tort Update, please contact your Weston Hurd attorney.
Ohio Supreme Court Slip Opinion
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