Directly Accountable: A stark Ohio case shows how tort reform harms victims of sexual assault.
In the early 1990s, Brian Williams, a youth pastor at Delaware Grace Brethren Church in Ohio, allegedly tried to put his hand down the pants of a teenage girl named April Jokela. Years later, Jokela’s mother testified in court that when she complained to church officials, they told her, “Let’s just keep this quiet to protect our brother.”
In 2008, according to court testimony, Williams forced 15-year-old Jessica Simpkins to perform oral sex during a counseling session in his office. Then he blocked the door and vaginally raped her. Williams subsequently pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual battery and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Like many sexual assault victims, Simpkins also pursued a civil suit against the church. In a criminal case, “the perpetrator is only going to be held accountable to the state, not the victim,” says Joanne Doroshow of the Center for Justice and Democracy at New York Law School. “Sometimes, the civil justice system is the only way for a perpetrator to be held directly accountable to the victim for the trauma and the pain that they’ve caused.”
The jury that heard Simpkins’ case awarded her more than $3.6 million, $3.5 million of which was intended to compensate her for depression, PTSD, and other “pain and suffering” that she experienced as a result of the rape. There was just one problem: In Ohio, non-economic damages—which compensate for things such as disability, disfigurement, and trauma—are capped in most cases at $250,000. Now, Simpkins and her lawyer are trying to get the caps declared unconstitutional as they apply to minors who are victims of sexual abuse. Their latest brief argues, among other things, that the limits are “arbitrary and unreasonable, and thus a denial of due process,” and that “the effect of the statute is to clearly alter the jury’s finding that she suffered a catastrophic injury. … By arbitrarily overruling that finding, [the cap] violates Jessica Simpkins’ right to a trial by jury.” Ohio’s Supreme Court is expected to rule any day now.
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