October 2, 2012
Eighth Circuit on Due Process Constraints of Punitive Damages (and First Amendment)
In its opinion in Ondrisek v. Hoffman, a panel of the Eighth Circuit held "Despite the exceptionally reprehensible nature of Alamo’s conduct, it would be unconstitutional to let the punitive damages – and their 10:1 ratio to compensatory damages – stand."
The Defendant, Bernie Hoffman, a/k/a Tony Alamo (pictured right), was the leader of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries (TACM). The Plaintiffs, Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna were raised in TACM, and suffered extreme brutality until they managed to escape at age 18. As the panel opinion states:
Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna were raised in TACM. They were forced to work without pay starting at the age of 8. Alamo began threatening to beat Ondrisek when he was 11. Alamo told him that if he disobeyed, he would be enlisted in the military and “shot and killed.” When he was 12, Alamo had an “enforcer” severely beat him because he made a small tunnel while hauling dirt for the church. As Ondrisek received discipline of 15 to 20 blows to his face, Alamo made his father watch. Ondrisek then received 20 to 30 strikes from a paddle that was three feet long, an inch-and-a-half thick, and three or four inches wide. He was unable to sit for several days and not allowed to attend services because the swelling on his face was too visible. Two years later Alamo had Ondrisek beaten again for horseplay. He sustained 15 to 20 hits to his mouth, beginning to bleed after the second blow. He also received 30 to 40 paddles (maybe more), causing severe bruising that did not fully heal for several weeks. He has permanent scarring from the beating. At 15, Ondrisek’s schooling stopped, and he began working on the church’s property 70 hours a week. He was forced to attend services and listen to Alamo’s recordings daily. As punishment for falling asleep as a night watchman, Alamo required him to fast two days, giving him only water. At 16 or 17, Ondrisek was beaten for a third time after being falsely accused of bullying. He was slapped 20 or more times in the face, and paddled 40 times. Ondrisek blacked out, but no one took him to a hospital. His hand was severely injured and still causes him pain.
Calagna’s youth at TACM was similar to Ondrisek’s. When he was 14, Calagna’s parents woke him at 4 a.m. to have him beaten. He was hit so hard he vomited. His face was unrecognizable afterwards; his injuries took weeks to heal. Less than a month later, he witnessed his father get beaten, causing him emotional distress. He was beaten again at 17 for talking about “Harry Potter.” He was struck until the paddle broke and then hit again with a larger board. In addition to physical abuse, both boys experienced verbal abuse. They both contemplated suicide, “unable to imagine that death would be worse.” At 18, Ondrisek and Calagna escaped TACM separately. They still have trouble sleeping, experiencing nightmares and flashbacks. Alamo is currently serving a 175-year sentence for 10 counts of transporting minors across state lines for illicit sex.
A jury awarded each plaintiff $3 million in compensatory damages and $30 million in punitive damages.
The Eighth Circuit quickly rejected Alamo's argument that his actions were protected by the First Amendment free exercise clause. The panel also rejected Alamo's appeal regarding a denied jury instruction on corporal punishment and regarding compensatory damages. However, the panel found meritorous Alamo's argument that the $30 million punitive damages award violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment's prohibition of “grossly excessive” civil punishment under BMW of N. Am., Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 568 (1996).
The panel reduced the punitive damages to $12 million for each plaintiff, at a ratio of 4:1. The panel opinion provided an instructive chart of Eighth Circuit cases regarding due process punitive damage decisions in support of its decision.
It does seem, however, that the chart elides the gravity of the case against Alamo. As the panel admits, the compensatory damages in the various cases are generally less than a million dollars. Moreover, it does not seem as if any of the charted cases involve such prolonged acts.
Perhaps Tony Alamo's prolonged intentional torts should be considered "off the charts," at least for the "grossly excessive" analysis of punitive damages in a due process analysis.
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I thank the metaphysical being who created and rules our universe every day for the Guardians of Justice who invented the due process limitation on punitive damages awards. I am referring, of course, to the majority of the US Supreme Court in the BMW of North America decision, who discovered this constitutional principle, which had lain hidden and dormant for about two centuries. As a strong supporter of the doctrine of substantive due process, I particularly enjoyed reading the BMW analysis of how low punitive damage ratios are implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, and deeply rooted in the history and tradition of the United States. Now giant corporations and others who intentionally or recklessly harm their victims can much more accurately program the costs of mutilation, torture, dismemberment, and death into their profit-calculating algorithms. A rising tide lifts all yachts, and even the little people splashing about in the water with their damaged limbs, until they tire and sink below the surface, happily out of sight at last.
Posted by: Jeffrey G. Purvis | Oct 3, 2012 11:52:46 AM