9/15/11 – TG: Judge denies bid to reduce award in Alamo lawsuit. Alamo must pay $66 million to men who allege physical abuse

Texarkana Gazette
September 15, 2011
By: Lynn LaRowe

Judge denies bid to reduce award in Alamo lawsuit
Minister must pay $66 million to men who allege physical abuse

A federal judge described Tony Alamo’s behavior as “highly reprehensible” in an order handed down Tuesday d e n y i n g Alamo’s bid for reduction of a $66 million civil judgment.

“We were optimistic that Judge (Barry) Bryant would not reduce the jury’s verdict. The facts in this case were compelling. And we are very pleased that the court concluded that the jury carefully considered the evidence and followed the court’s instructions in reaching its verdict,” said Texarkana defense attorney David Carter, who represented the plaintiffs. “This ruling is just another step in securing some justice for these young men.”

A jury awarded Seth Calagna and Spencer Ondrisek, former members raised in the controversial Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, $3 million apiece in actual damages and $30 million apiece in punitive damages after a trial in June.

Alamo’s defense attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, complained in an August motion that the award for actual damages was motivated by “passion and prejudice” and that the punitive award is unconstitutional, unreasonable and unlawful. Hall argued the judgment should “shock the conscience of the court,” because the men were simply paddled and had the option of leaving the church if they chose.

“They knew their options, and they knew what they were getting into,” Hall’s motion said.

But in his order Tuesday, Bryant notes that evidence at trial showed the men were “for the first 18 years of their lives subjected to continual verbal and physical abuse at the direction of (Alamo),” subjected to repeated and ritualistic beatings, forced to labor unpaid, denied food, denied education and isolated from the outside world.

In his response to Hall’s motion, Carter argued that the men suffered so much while in the ministry that each contemplated suicide and questioned the existence of God.

“The jury in this case carefully considered the evidence and followed this court’s instructions,” Bryant’s order states.

Bryant analyzed Hall’s claim that the $30 million in punitive damages awarded to each plaintiff is excessive and unlawful. Hall pointed to the $500,000 in restitution Alamo is ordered to pay each of five women named in his criminal indictment.

Alamo was convicted of bringing the women he’d wed as children across state lines for sex. He is serving a 175-year sentence.

However, Bryant found that the cases Hall cited as support for his argument are not relevant. His opinion states that criminal restitution is not intended to compensate a victim for damages that might be awarded in a civil proceeding.

Bryant also addressed Hall’s assertion that the $66 million awarded by the jury isn’t fair in light of the $3 million in damages Alamo’s co-defendant, John Kolbek, was ordered to pay.

Bryant notes the judgment in the Kolbek case was a default, because Kolbek was a fugitive and never responded to Calagna and Ondrisek’s complaint. If a jury had heard and considered the evidence against Kolbek, the award might have been different, Bryant wrote.

Bryant’s opinion states that Alamo was sanctioned by a federal court previously for abusing a child but continued the conduct.

In 1990, a federal court awarded 12-year-old Justin Miller and his family more than $1 million in damages for Alamo-directed abuses.

After the release of Bryant’s opinion Tuesday afternoon, Hall filed notice that he intends to appeal the decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The $66 million award is the largest sustained judgment in a personal injury case in Arkansas history.

In: 2011

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