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Rejecting the Superior Court’s conclusion that punitive damages are never available for claims of negligent supervision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has unanimously decided to remand a case stemming from a sexual abuse action against a priest-teacher at a diocesan school. On appeal from the Blair County Common Pleas Court — which refused to set aside a jury’s award of $1.05 million in punitive damages against the Rev. Francis Luddy of St. Therese’s Catholic Church and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown — the Superior Court held in Hutchison v. Luddy that punitive damages are unavailable for claims filed under Section 317 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts. “In overturning the jury award of punitive damages in this case, the Superior Court panel did not view the question before it as requiring application of the settled punitive damages standard to the facts of this case,” Justice Ronald D. Castille wrote. “Instead, the panel concluded that, since the cause of action for negligent supervision may succeed upon a showing of ordinary negligence, and an award of punitive damages requires far more than ordinary negligence, negligent supervision causes of action can never be the basis for an award of punitive damages. In so holding, the panel conflated theories of liability with the distinct issue of damages, misconstrued this court’s precedent and thereby committed an error of law.” Castille was joined by Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy and Justices Russell M. Nigro, Sandra Schultz Newman, Thomas G. Saylor, J. Michael Eakin and Max Baer. Richard Serbin of Serbin Kovacs & Nypaver in Altoona, Pa., who represents plaintiff Michael Hutchison Jr. and his family, said the court’s ruling could apply to future cases that involve day care centers, stores that dispatch deliverymen to residences and other businesses or entities. “I’m sure it’s a decision that’s going to be looked at very closely by attorneys across the state,” Serbin said, “because if the Superior Court opinion was allowed to stand, it would’ve limited the opportunities to collect punitive damages to only intentional conduct, and therefore, the fact that the Superior Court was reversed is extremely important.” According to Castille’s opinion, Hutchison — mildly retarded and with a low I.Q. — was sexually molested by Luddy, his priest and religious teacher, beginning in 1977 when he was roughly 10 years old. This continued frequently until 1982, when the Hutchison family moved to Ohio, and intermittently until Michael was 17 and he would return to Altoona from Ohio. In 1987, the Hutchisons filed suit against Luddy, St. Therese’s, and the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and its bishop. After an 11-week trial in the winter and spring of 1994, according to the opinion, the jury found that the diocese knew Luddy was molesting children, that it had ignored a number of allegations of pedophilia against its priests, that it had been negligent in its supervision of Luddy and that its negligence was a substantial factor in bringing about Michael’s harm. The Hutchisons were awarded a total of $519,000 in compensatory damages, and the jury, finding that all the defendants’ conduct had been outrageous, awarded the family $50,000 in punitive damages as to Luddy personally and $1 million in punitive damages as to the diocese under the supervision claim, according to the opinion. In September 1996, a divided Superior Court panel vacated the judgment against the diocese, ruling that the Hutchisons failed to establish negligent supervision liability pursuant to Section 317. On appeal, according to Castille’s opinion, the Supreme Court vacated the Superior Court’s order in favor of the diocese and remanded to the Superior Court for further proceedings. On remand, the Superior Court reversed the punitive damages award as to the diocese and entered a JNOV in the diocese’s favor. “The [diocese argues] that, as the jury only found [it] liable of negligent supervision and hiring, there was insufficient evidentiary basis, as a matter of law, to support the award of punitive damages,” Castille wrote. Citing the state Supreme Court’s 1985 plurality opinion in Martin v. Johns-Manville Corp., Castille wrote that in Pennsylvania, a punitive damages claim must be supported by evidence that establishes that a defendant had a “subjective appreciation” of the risk of harm to which the plaintiff was exposed and that the defendant either acted or failed to act “in conscious disregard” of that risk. The high court does not dispute that evidence of ordinary negligence is not enough to warrant punitive damages, Castille said, “but neither is there anything in law or logic to prevent the plaintiff in a case sounding in negligence from undertaking the additional burden of attempting to prove, as a matter of damages, that the defendant’s conduct not only was negligent but that the conduct was also outrageous, and warrants a response in the form of punitive damages.” Even if it is more difficult to prove a case of negligent supervision against the “master” given that the direct harm is usually done by the “servant,” nothing in Section 317 bars plaintiffs from attempting to make such a case, the justices concluded. Serbin said his clients have received money in conjunction with their compensatory damages award — slightly over $1.2 million in October 2002, including interest and delay damages — but none of the $1.05 million in punitive damages that the jury awarded them. The diocese and its related parties were represented by attorneys from Meyer Darragh Buckler Bebenek & Eck in Pittsburgh. A call to the firm seeking comment was not immediately returned. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, which was granted amicus standing in the matter, was represented by Philip Murren of Ball Murren & Connell in Camp Hill. Murren declined to comment on the court’s decision.

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