8/29/12 – TG: Court lowers the punitive damages in Alamo case. Judgment drops from $66 million to $30 million

Texarkana Gazette
August 29, 2012
By: Lynn LaRowe

Court lowers the punitive damages in Alamo case.
Judgment drops from $66 million to $30 million

A $66 million judgment awarded to two men raised in Tony Alamo’s controversial ministry has been reduced by an appellate court to $30 million.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury’s finding that Alamo is guilty of battery, outrage and conspiracy.

At the end of a June 2011 civil trial, the jury awarded Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna $3 million each in compensatory damages meant as redress for the physical and emotional abuse they suffered as children at Alamo’s direction.

The higher court’s opinion leaves those damages untouched.

But the jury’s award of $30 million to each man in punitive damages was reduced by Tuesday’s opinion to $12 million apiece.

While the higher court found that damages meant to punish Alamo and to deter him and others from future like conduct were justified, it found the amount of punitive damages unconstitutionally high.

“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 opinion states.

The reduction of the damages to a 4:1 ratio was made to “maintain the notions of fundamental fairness and due process,” while noting that a 4:1 ratio may approach the constitutional limit, the opinion states.

Texarkana attorney David Carter, who represents Ondrisek and Calagna, said he is pleased the appellate court found the jury’s verdict sound and said he is not surprised by the lowering of punitive damages.

“When an appeals court reviews punitive damages, they are required to apply a due process analysis, which the jury is not asked to consider during the trial,” Carter said.

“We are confident that a $30 million judgment sends the right message to Alamo, as well as others who might abuse children.”

When Carter and Alamo’s attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, appeared before the 8th Circuit to argue the case in June, Carter argued that Alamo hasn’t learned his lesson in light of a previous case involving nearly identical allegations to those made by Ondrisek and Calagna.

Hall could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday.

In 1990, a district court found in favor of 12-year-old Justin Miller and his family. Like Ondrisek and Calagna, Miller was publicly beaten at Alamo’s direction as a large group of followers looked on.

“This court, like the court in Miller, ‘Can conceive of no higher duty incumbent on it than the protection of children from outrageous batteries like the one that the evidence here so plainly reveals,’” the opinion states. “Even after he was found liable, Alamo continued beating children, indicating that the prior, lesser damages did not deter him. Alamo was in a position of trust as a religious leader, yet he continually abused that power to subject children to substantial physical and emotional abuse.”

In: 2012, Breaking News

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