August 2, 2011

Sex and punitive damages

Here's an interesting cross section of punitive damages news over the last week, offering a non-statistically significant glimpse into the punishment meted out for certain inappropriate (bit of understatement there) behavior:

Gang rape --- $1.03 million compensatory damages; $1.5 million punitive damages (about 1.5:1 ratio). As reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, a state appellate court found last week that $1.5 million is not an excessive punitive damages award for the trial judge to have awarded against three men after a default prove-up hearing in a case in which the men were alleged to have drugged and raped the plaintiff. (See opinion in Pausch v. Cormier.) However, because the judge's ruling did not make clear whether the award was assessed individually against the defendants ($500,000 owed by each), or was to be awarded jointly and severally against them, the court of appeal could not determine whether the trial court should have taken the defendants' financial condition into account (which, under Wisconsin law, would be appropriate only if the awards were made individually and not jointly). The matter was remanded for clarification by the trial judge.

Diocese's fraudulent concealment of molestation --- $2.4 million compensatory damages; $2.6 million punitive damages (less than 1:1 ratio). The National Catholic Reporter notes that last month the Illinois Supreme Court rejected a final plea for relief from the Catholic Diocese of Belleville, which had sought review of an intermediate appellate court decision affirming an adverse judgment that included punitive damages awarded to molestation victim James Wisniewski. Notably, the diocese did not argue that the punitive award was excessive, but instead challenged the liability finding on statute of limitations and evidentiary error grounds.

Adultery resulting in "alienation of affection" --- $1.275 million compensatory damages; $1.025 million punitive damages (a bit more than 1:1 ratio). A North Carolina jury has awarded compensatory and punitive damages against a man who, the plaintiff claimed, had an affair with the plaintiff's wife and caused the breakup of a marriage that the plaintiff said had been characterized by "genuine love and affection." Specifically, according to a Salisbury Post article, the jury awarded $425,000 for alienation of affection and $175,000 in punitive damages on that count, plus $850,000 for "criminal conversation" (i.e., sex outside of marriage) and the same amount for punitive damages on that count. The article observes that this was far more than the plaintiff had asked for, the defendant filed for bankruptcy, and the case (McCoy v. Freeman) settled after trial, effectively insulating the award from any appellate review.

Update (8/26): last March another North Carolina court case involving "criminal conversation" (reported here and here) resulted in a default judgment of $30 million to a jilted spouse (Carol Puryear) who sued the cheating spouse's lover (Betty Devin). The total is comprised of $10 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages.

Update (8/21/11): see this article ("Even a sex-toy purveyor can have a sexually hostile workplace") about a divided New Jersey appellate division ruling last week in Longo v. Pleasure Productions Inc. The court upheld a Florida jury's award in an employment discrimination case brought by a plaintiff who worked at a sex toy company. She complained of harrassment by a co-worker and retaliatory discharge, and received a compensatory damages award of $150,000 (awarded jointly against an individual and against the employer), plus $500,000 in punitive damages against the employer only.

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