Tort reform in Ohio has many advocates, but changes to the state’s legal system designed to provide people with the right to seek financial compensation for the reckless or negligent behavior of someone else has had unintended consequences for victims of violent crime.
Family takes legal action
In 2013, a woman who was sexually assaulted in her teens by a pastor was awarded millions in damages in a civil lawsuit, but that award was massively reduced because of Ohio’s 2005 tort reform law.
As reported in the Columbus Dispatch, the woman was 15 years old when she was sexually assaulted by Brian Williams, senior pastor at Sunbury Grace Brethren Church in Sunbury, Ohio, during a counseling session in March 2008. In court testimony, the victim said Williams prevented her from leaving his office and forced her to engage in oral and vaginal sex.
The woman and her father filed suit against the Grace Brethren Church of Delaware, charging that the church had been aware of previous incidents of sexually inappropriate behavior by the pastor. The woman’s attorney said she had been found to have post-traumatic stress, had tremendous fears and anxiety and also had fears about when Williams got out of prison.
A jury agreed that the church was negligent and awarded the woman a total of $3.6 million. Most of this amount was for non-economic damages, which included pain and suffering.
But due to the tort reform law, the court reduced the non-economic damages from $3.5 million to $350,000, for a total judgment of $500,000. The cap on damages was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, which affirmed the decision in 2016.
Supporters of tort reform might argue that $500,000 is still a significant amount of money. But the litigation lasted for more than 8 years. After attorney’s fees, expert witness costs and other expenses, the victim in the case ended up with much less. Following the Supreme Court decision, there have been calls to change the law, noting that the legislation that was originally intended to “curb frivolous lawsuits and runaway jury awards” had used too broad a brush by not exempting victims of sexual abuse.
The decision was widely denounced, and critics said it exposed a fundamental flaw in the 2005 law. “I don’t think anyone would disagree that this woman experienced massive pain and suffering as a result of her assault,” said Columbus personal injury attorney Scott Elliot Smith. “How can you put such an arbitrarily low cap on that? This law needs to change.”
Advocates for change
Beyond the financial impact on the victim’s life, these reduced recoveries send a message that such violent crimes don’t matter as much – or more accurately, that they matter more or less depending on the victim’s status.
“Financially well-off victims aren’t hurt as much by this law,” explained attorney Smith. “They can demonstrate past and future lost wages; they have pages and pages of documented medical expenses and other well-defined losses. Those are considered economic damages which are not affected by the cap.”
“But children, unemployed people, disabled and disadvantaged people, often people of color – they have to depend on non-economic damages to get the compensation they deserve, to cover the costs needed to seek justice in the first place and still be able to pay for the services they need to put their lives back together. These are the people the law should be written to protect, not harm. Tort ‘reform’ disproportionately hurts victims who are already hurting.”
In February 2017, State Reps. Anne Gonzales, R-Westerville, and Kristin Boggs, D-Columbus, introduced House Bill 20, which would remove the cap for victims of rape, felonious assault, aggravated assault or negligent assault. But the bill has stalled in committee.
The General Assembly needs to take action on this bill on behalf of assault victims, and soon.