Court upholds cap on damages for Ohio woman raped as teen


COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a request from a woman raped by a pastor when she was 15 to boost the amount of damages paid by the church where the minister worked.

Attorneys for the woman and her father argued a state law that limits noneconomic damages to $350,000 violates the constitutional rights of underage sexual assault victims.

They argue that sexual abuse is typically more emotionally damaging than physical injury and sexually abused minors often spend years dealing with the trauma.

Attorneys for the church argued that distinguishing between sexual abuse and physical injury isn’t arbitrary or unreasonable. They also said the woman didn’t suffer the types of catastrophic injuries needed to override the cap.

As evidence, they said the woman finished high school, attended college, has a full-time job and hasn’t participated in mental health counseling or treatment since 2008, the year the assault occurred.

The court agreed, ruling 3-2 to uphold the caps with two additional justices saying the court shouldn’t have taken the case.

The woman’s injuries from the assault don’t meet the “extreme qualifications” required by Ohio law to avoid the caps, wrote Justice Judi French.

She added, “we do not doubt the reality and seriousness” of the woman’s emotional and psychological injuries.

The attack happened at Sunbury Grace Brethren Church in Delaware in central Ohio. The church’s senior pastor, Brian Williams, was counseling the girl in his office about her falling grades and issues at home surrounding her parents’ separation when he forced her to perform oral sex, then forced intercourse on her, according to the ruling Wednesday.

Williams pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual battery and was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Justices William O’Neill and Paul Pfeifer dissented by criticizing the 2005 law that limited damages in such lawsuits, sometimes known as tort reform. The court previously upheld the overall law.

“It turns out that ‘tort reform’ (and the justices who sanctioned it) also ensured that rapists and those who enable them will not have to pay the full measure of the damages they cause — even if they rape a child,” Pfeiffer wrote.

The court’s decision reduces a $3.6 million jury award to the woman and her father to about $385,000, out of which she must pay attorneys’ fees and other costs.

The court didn’t rule on several issues raised on appeal, meaning the woman still has the chance to argue for punitive damages at a new trial.

Nonetheless, her attorney was deeply disappointed by Wednesday’s decision.

“It’s shocking that our Ohio Supreme Court would protect those who rape children and limit the rights of a raped child,” said Columbus attorney John Fitch.

A lawyer representing the church said the court made the proper decision.

“We did not suggest in any way that this rape had not been emotionally traumatizing to her. Certainly it was,” said attorney Charles Curley. “But the argument was that in the eyes of the law you need a catastrophic injury which the legislature defined, to get away from these damage caps.”

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Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins