INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A top state attorney defended Indiana’s punitive damages
law Thursday against claims that it renders trials meaningless by forcing
judges to reduce awards in lawsuits without telling jurors.
Solicitor General Thomas Fisher asked the Indiana Supreme Court to overturn
a Marion County judge’s decision that found the law treads on judicial
independence and violates the right to trial by jury guaranteed in the state
The judge refused to reduce a $150,000 punitive damages award to a man who
claimed his uncle, a Roman Catholic priest, sexually abused him when he was
17. The judge had told jurors they could consider the priest’s
“reprehensible conduct” when they decided on damages.
Under Indiana law, juries in civil cases can award punitive damages of up to
three times the amount of compensatory damages they decide on, but there is
a $50,000 cap. The state gets a three-quarter share, which goes to a fund
that helps victims of violent crime.
In this case, jurors gave the man $50,000 in compensatory damages and
awarded triple punitive damages for a total of $200,000.
The priest appealed the punitive damages award, citing the $50,000 limit,
but the judge rejected his appeal, saying the cap violated the state
constitution. The state then intervened, seeking its 75 percent share. The
judge denied the state’s request, and the state appealed.
Patrick Noaker, who represents the man called John Doe in court documents,
told the justices that secretly reducing the amount jurors decide to award
plaintiffs after hearing the evidence infringes on the principle of trial by
“It’s a charade. It’s a complete charade,” Noaker said. He added, “We have
to let the jury make a decision and whether we agree with it or not, we have
to live with that decision.”
Fisher disagreed, saying jurors don’t necessarily need to know about the
"The idea that the Legislature doesn’t want to confuse jury deliberations
with the knowledge that there is some sort of cap is based on the idea that
they don’t want the jury to be somehow misguided by that extraneous fact,”
he said. “So what they’re doing is setting up a process — a step by step
process — designed to keep the jury insulated from extraneous information
and at the same afford the appropriate timing for the cap to be in place.”
Justice Robert Rucker questioned that reasoning.
“The problem with this statute, isn’t it that it puts a cap and then it says
once the jury deliberates, once the jury returns its verdicts after hearing
all the evidence and awards punitive damages, you, mister trial court and
judge, you are now instructed to reduce those damages,” Rucker said. “It
seems to me that that’s part of the problem at least in terms of the
separation of powers.”
Noaker said it would have been within the Legislature’s power to completely
bar punitive damages, or to have judges instruct jurors to limit their
awards, but not to compel judges to reduce those amounts after the jury
makes a decision.
Fisher, however, maintained that the issue was one of public policy, not
“This court has recognized time and again that when it comes to public
policy decisions, the judiciary must yield to the legislative judgment,” he
The dispute stems from a civil trial held in 2008. Doe and other witnesses
testified that his uncle, who was a priest, had sexually abused Doe on two
occasions when he was a teenager. Child protection workers substantiated the
report, but took no action, and the county prosecutor declined to file
charges, according to court documents. Doe later filed a lawsuit against the