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Courts and Crime


Tort reform through the lens of a rape victim
The Ohio law, passed in the name of limiting lawsuit abuses, poses controversy for plaintiffs of negligence and malpractice cases
Story by MANDIE TRIMBLE


 
The Ohio Statehouse is where the lawmaking process takes place.
Courtesy of The Ohio Statehouse
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A decade ago, Ohio passed so-called tort reform laws, which severely limited jury awards in negligence and malpractice cases.

Supporters say the laws have helped Ohio's economy; victims say it lets wrong-doers off the hook.

From Ohio Public Radio member station WOSU, Mandie Trimble has the story of one woman affected by tort reform.

LISTEN: The cost of tort reform

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It was during a Bible study that Jess says she met Brian Williams, the new minister of Sunbury Grace Brethren Church in Delaware. She was 15 years old. Williams was 42.

“My grades were falling at school, and my guidance counselor thought it was because of unresolved issues at home. So she advised me to go talk to my pastor at church because she knew I was big into church,” Jess said.

During that meeting, Williams attacked Jess.

Because Jess is a sexual assault victim, we’re only using her first name.

Williams pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual battery; he’s serving an eight-year prison term.

Jess sued the churches who hired the pastor and a Delaware County jury awarded her $3.6 million. The bulk of the award was for pain and suffering. But state law caps non-economic losses in most cases, to $250,000. So, a judge reduced Jess’ total award to $310,000.

'Protecting bad people'
“We are now protecting, as a matter of public policy, a whole lot of bad people in Ohio,” attorney John Fitch said.

Fitch is Jess’ lawyer.

“To me, it’s something that’s very disturbing,” Fitch said. “I’ve called it a moral outrage. And I continue to feel it’s a moral outrage. We don’t need to cap the damages of children who are raped in this state.”

Tort reform has been described as a pendulum; in whose favor it swings depends on which political party controls the Statehouse. 

Ten years ago, then-Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, signed two major tort-reform provisions into law. One capped pain and suffering awards in medical malpractice cases, the other limited non-economic awards in other cases.

“There was a big thrust to try to improve the economy of Ohio,” Columbus attorney Terrance Miller said.

Critical to business
Miller defends businesses sued in product-liability cases.  He says the laws provide predictability for companies.

“And not just big businesses, and certainly not just insurance companies, small business owners, anybody who could be subjected to a very large award in a tort suit which could have the effect of crippling or terminating their business,” Miller said.

The National Federation of Independent Business in Ohio played a role limiting awards.

The federation's Chris Ferruso says tort reform is critical to small business owners because, again, it provides predictability.

“That’s been reflective through an increase in certainly carriers in the state willing to write liability insurance for small business owners,” Ferruso said. “And I think we can all agree competition drives price down. It is a cost of doing business.”

Doctors pushed hard for the limits. The Ohio State Medical Association’s Tim Maglione says large civil awards drove up malpractice insurance rates and caused some doctors, particularly specialists, to quit their practices.

“It really became an access-to-care issue,” Maglione said.

He said the legislation is working; insurance premiums have dropped by more than 25 percent.

“We are not hearing from physicians today like we did 10 years ago that they are having to stop providing services to their patients because they can’t get affordable liability coverage,” Maglione  said.

Who is spinning?
But Jess’ attorney, John Fitch, says the arguments are bunk.

“The spin they put on it sounds good, but the reality is cases like this, where very deserving victims have their awards slashed, ... profits, as in this case, flow directly to the insurance industry,” Fitch said.

Attorney Terrance Miller -- who supports tort reform -- acknowledges the policies are not perfect, especially as they relate to arbitrary limits.

“I do understand the concerns about how this applies in certain individual situations, and it may be that there would need to be a further thought about an additional exception to the cap, although I think it would be very difficult to implement that,” Miller said.

Jess continues to move forward with life. She expects to finish college in January and hopes to attend the police academy. But her past looms in the shadows in the form of an on-going appeals process and nightmares.

“I just wish I could get over it and not let it affect me at all,” she said.

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