On October 1, 2009, the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of R.C. 2744.05(C)(1), which limits noneconomic damages to $250,000 per plaintiff in cases against political subdivisions. Oliver v. Cleveland Indians Baseball Company, Slip Opinion No. 2009-Ohio-5030. The Court held that this statutory cap on noneconomic damages does not violate the right to trial by jury or the right to equal protection under the law.
Chief Justice Moyer authored the majority opinion. Justices Lundberg Stratton, O'Connor, Lanzinger, and Cupp concurred in the majority opinion. Justice Pfeifer submitted a dissenting opinion. Justice O'Donnell also dissented for the reasons stated in his dissenting opinion in Arbino v. Johnson & Johnson.
Donald Krieger and Clifton Oliver (Appellees) were arrested at a Cleveland Indians game on suspicion of their involvement with an explosion at the stadium. While in custody, they were subjected to extremely poor conditions and harsh treatment. Eventually, the charges against them were dismissed by the Cuyahoga County prosecuting attorney.
Appellees sued the City of Cleveland (City) for malicious prosecution, false arrest and imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, alleging that the arrests and detention adversely impacted their jobs and their mental and physical health. In their trial against the City, the jury awarded $400,000 in compensatory damages and $600,000 in punitive damages to each of them. The trial court vacated the punitive damage award as impermissible against the City. But the trial court refused to apply the noneconomic damage cap set forth in R.C. 2744.05(C)(1) to reduce compensatory damages to $250,000 for each plaintiff.
The Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision and held that R.C. 2744.05(C)(1) is unconstitutional because it violates a plaintiff's right to a jury trial and the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. Krieger v. Cleveland Indians Baseball Co., 176 Ohio App.3d 410, 2008-Ohio-2183, 892 N.E.2d 461, § 69.
The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and held that R.C. 2744.05(C)(1) does not violate the constitutional right to a jury trial or the constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
In so holding, the Court relied heavily on its decision in Arbino v. Johnson & Johnson, 116 Ohio St.3d 468, 2007-Ohio-6948, 880 N.E.2d 420, in which it reviewed R.C. 2315.18, a different statute limiting noneconomic damages. Although R.C. 2744.05(C)(1) differed from the statute at issue in Arbino in that R.C. 2744.05(C)(1) applies to damage awards against political subdivisions, as opposed to private litigants, the purpose and effect of both statutes were the same -- to limit compensatory damage awards for non-economic harm.
Additionally, the general noneconomic damage statute in Arbino (R.C. 2315.18) contains an exception to the caps for persons who suffer "catastrophic injuries," which is not included in R.C. 2744.05(C)(1). The Court found this difference "to be no obstacle to the application of the reasoning of Arbino to this case." Oliver, at § 6. As in Arbino, the Court held that while a jury determines the amount of damages as a matter of fact, the actual award may be reduced as a matter of law. Oliver, at § 7. Thus, the Court held that the limit on noneconomic damages in R.C. 2744.05(C)(1) does not unconstitutionally restrict the right to a jury trial under Section 5, Article I of the Ohio Constitution or the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The Court applied a similar analogy to Arbino in holding that R.C. 2744.05 does not violate equal protection rights. No fundamental right or protected class was at issue in Oliver, and R.C. 2744.05(C)(1) was facially neutral. Therefore, the Court reviewed the statute to determine whether it had a rational basis. Oliver, at § 9. The Court concluded that a limit on the noneconomic damages for which a political subdivision may be liable is rationally related to the purpose of preserving the financial integrity of political subdivisions. The Court noted that because it had already held that the General Assembly could have prohibited all tort actions against political subdivisions in Menefee v. Queen City Metro (1990), 49 Ohio St.3d 27, 29, it was not arbitrary or unreasonable for the General Assembly to allow some recovery in tort actions.
Justice Pfeiffer's Dissent
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Pfeiffer reaffirmed his dissent in Arbino in which he noted the importance of the right to a trial by jury. He opined that the statutes at issue in Arbino and Oliver enable courts to "enter judgments in disregard of the jury's verdict." He suggested that a cap on damages is not analogous to remittitur because remittitur cannot be granted without the consent of the prevailing party. As such, Justice Pfeiffer submits that statutory caps unconstitutionally invade the province of the jury by replacing damages awards determined by a jury with a predetermined cap imposed by the General Assembly.
Moreover, as to the equal protection issue, Justice Pfeiffer distinguished Arbino, noting that in Arbino, the Court was supplied with findings of fact from the General Assembly, whereas in Oliver, the General Assembly did not issue findings of facts. Justice Pfeiffer, then, submits that applying the equal protection analysis in the Arbino case to Oliver is unreasonable given the lack of legislative findings of fact.