Tort Law Revisions Leaves Sexual Assault Victims Behind

by | Sep 27, 2017

The revision of our country’s tort laws has long been a goal of U.S. corporations, doctors, and some conservative groups. Such tort revision, often unfairly couched as tort ‘reform,’ seeks to adversely affect people’s ability to access the civil justice system, and to reduce the amount of damages a person or family can recover after they’ve been injured. On the federal level, House Republicans have been quietly advancing such an agenda. Many different kinds of people will suffer as a result of this, including sexual assault victims. In fact, such unfortunate changes in tort law have already occurred in the state of Ohio. If Ohio is any indication of what is to come from such proposed revisions to our civil justice system, it is clear that sexual assault victims will be left behind.

In 2004, Ohio revised its tort laws to the detriment of patients, consumers, and perhaps an unintended victim- sexual assault survivors. In 2007, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld these laws, which capped the amount of noneconomic damages that can be awarded to an injured person. For sexual assault survivors, this has drastic consequences to the amount you are permitted to recover. For example, if you are sexually assaulted as a child , you may be in need of some form of mental health counseling or therapy for the rest of your life. Yet in Ohio, you are capped at receiving $350,000 for noneconomic damages, no matter how egregious the crime. This is true even if the jury awards you 3.5 million, as this happened to sexual assault survivor Jessica Simpkins. She was raped by her church’s pastor as a child. After her civil trial against the church for failing to take action against the pastor (who was a known sexual predator before he assaulted Simpkins), the jury awarded her 3.5 million dollars for her pain and suffering. The Courts took that award, applied the law passed by legislators in 2004, and capped her damages at a mere $350,000.

The Mic Network did a piece on this, and in it noted that a handful of Ohio lawmakers also agreed that this was an unacceptable consequence of tort reform: “In 2017, state Rep. Anne Gonzales (R) and Kristin Boggs (D), introduced legislation to revise Ohio’s tort reform law to include an exception to the damage cap for victims of “rape, felonious assault, aggravated assault, assault or negligent assault asserting any claim resulting from the rape, felonious assault, aggravated assault, assault or negligent assault.” The legislation never even got to a committee hearing.

Such legislation’s effects on sexual assault victims in Ohio should serve as a cautionary tale for the rest of the country. We clearly cannot let such laws spread. It takes away the autonomy and discretion of judges and juries alike, and disempowers them from arriving at a just verdict on behalf of a victim. While we encourage strong opposition to any tort ‘reform’ being proposed in state or federal government, it is especially reprehensible when it negatively impacts survivors of sexual assault.

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