Tort law works! I blogged about the Boy Scout case a few weeks ago, but I need to revisit it here. The jury has sent the Boy Scouts of America a powerful messge! This Friday, the jury, who heard and carefully considered all the evidence, slammed the Boy Scouts of America with an $18.5 million punitive damages verdict for having allowed a former assistant Scoutmaster to sexually abuse him as a boy. The jury had already found, in the first stage of the trial, that the Boy Scouts conduct in allowing a known sex abuser to be an assistant Scoutmaster was outrageous and reckless.
How reckless? Consider this: After the molester admitted to a Boy Scouts official that he had already molested 17 boys, the Boy Scouts of America kept him on as Scoutmaster, and kept him in contact (to say the least!) with the boys, where he went on to molest, among others, the plaintiff in this case.
This $18.5 verdict was in addition to the $1.4 million in compensatory damages the jury already awarded to the sex abuse victim earlier this month. Compensatory damages are meant to compensate the pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages and other direct losses to the plaintiff. With punitive damages, however, the focus is not on compensating the victim, but on the behavior of the defendant. Punitive damages do what their name suggests; they PUNISH the wrongdoer, here the Boy Scouts of America, for very wrongful, reckless or deliberately harmful conduct. In New York the way we describe the kind of behavior that calls for punitive damages (also known as “exemplary damages”) is “conduct that evinces utter indifference or conscious disregard for the safety of others.” Punitive damages are meant to deter similar behavior in the future.
Although many “tort reformers” criticize punitive damages as being bad for business, cases like this one show how useful they are to society. The punitive damages verdict here sends a powerful message to those who knowingly keep child sex abusers in contact with children. Whether the corporation is the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, or any other corporation, they will have to pay, and pay BIG, if they willfully or with gross indifference fail to protect our children from such harm. In other words,the message is this: “Either change your ways, or be prepared to get knocked down to your knees with these large verdicts”. Bravo for punitive damages!