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Gray v. Hohenshell

Court of Appeals of Iowa

January 23, 2019

JANICE and JEFF GRAY, Individually and as parents and next friends of J.G., Plaintiffs-Appellees,
v.
JAMES LEE HOHENSHELL, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Jeanie K. Vaudt, Judge.

         James Hohenshell appeals a district court order denying his motion for a new trial and upholding a jury's award of damages.

          Andrew B. Howie of Shindler, Anderson, Goplerud & Weese, P.C., West Des Moines, for appellant. Cory F. Gourley of Gourley, Rehkemper & Lindholm, PLC, West Des Moines, for appellees.

          Emily McCarty and Amy Beck of Fiedler & Timmer, P.L.L.C., Johnston, and Eashaan Vajpeyi of Ball, Kirk & Holm, P.C., Waterloo, for amicus curiae Iowa Association for Justice.

          Heard by Tabor, P.J., and Mullins and Bower, JJ.

          MULLINS, JUDGE.

         James Hohenshell appeals a district court order denying his motion for a new trial and upholding a jury award in the amount of $127 million in favor of plaintiffs, Janice and Jeff Gray, individually and as parents and next friends of their daughter, J.G. He argues the district court erred in denying his motion for a new trial or remittitur[1] because: (1) the verdict was influenced by passion or prejudice, (2) the compensatory damages award was not supported by the evidence, and (3) the punitive damages award was excessive and violates his due process rights.

         I. Background Facts and Proceedings

         The evidence presented at trial establishes the following facts by a preponderance of the evidence. J.G. was thirteen years of age and just about to start eighth grade at the time of the following events. On August 10, 2013, J.G. attended a going away party for a close friend, R.B., who is Hohenshell's stepdaughter. After arriving at the party, J.G. and several of her friends ate food, swam, hung out, and watched a scary movie. While the girls were watching the movie, Hohenshell and his wife, Rachel, were drinking alcohol. Rachel left the party after the girls finished watching their movie. After Rachel left, Hohenshell asked the girls if they wanted to drink alcohol, but he advised them, "You can't tell anyone." Hohenshell then provided the girls with vodka, whiskey, and beer. J.G. had never consumed alcohol before. J.G. and her friends consumed the alcohol. After the alcohol was introduced at the party, everyone watched television. While J.G. was sitting on the couch next to Hohenshell, Hohenshell placed his hand on J.G.'s leg, upon which J.G. brushed it off and moved away from Hohenshell.

         J.G. ultimately consumed too much alcohol and became intoxicated and sick. R.B. and another of J.G.'s friends accompanied J.G. to the bathroom, where she vomited. J.G.'s friends advised her she should go to bed. J.G. proceeded to a spare bedroom, where she vomited a second time. J.G. then went to lay on the couch while her friends cleaned up the mess. Hohenshell picked J.G. up off the couch, carried her upstairs to his bedroom, and placed her on his bed. R.B. and the second friend followed, and R.B. questioned Hohenshell if he was planning to sleep with J.G. R.B. then requested that Hohenshell place J.G. in her bedroom. Hohenshell responded, "No, she's fine," and told R.B. and the other friend to leave the room. They complied, and Hohenshell shut the door behind them. J.G. vomited a third time in Hohenshell's bedroom. Hohenshell then raped J.G. J.G. begged Hohenshell to stop, but Hohenshell refused to relent, shoving J.G.'s face into a pillow, directing her to be quiet, and telling her she was fine. The experience was painful for J.G. J.G. was a virgin prior to being raped by Hohenshell.

         A week or so later, J.G. emotionally shared the foregoing events with one of her closest friends, S.L., who advised J.G. she needed to tell her parents or report it to someone else. J.G. then shared her experience with her former math teacher and a guidance counselor who, in turn, alerted the school principal and law enforcement. J.G.'s father, Jeff, was employed as a janitor at J.G.'s school at this time. The principal called Jeff into a meeting, at which time J.G. informed him of the sexual assault.

         Prior to these events, J.G. was confident, happy, outgoing, laid back, trusting, and bubbly. She made friends easily and enjoyed participating in extracurricular activities. After her encounter with Hohenshell, J.G. became depressed, scared, reserved, and cautious; she lacked a desire to interact with new people; she saw herself as someone no one wants to be around; and her enthusiasm about extracurricular activities decreased. According to S.L.'s testimony, J.G. experiences pain and suffering and J.G. has not been the same person since she was raped. J.G.'s former math teacher also observed a significant difference in J.G.'s demeanor, even before J.G. shared her experience with her. Her choir teacher also noticed the change in demeanor, noting in her testimony that J.G. was "full of life" with "an aura of sunshine around her" but became a hollow version of herself after the sexual assault. The witnesses at trial consistently testified J.G. continues to suffer on a daily basis. Since the encounter, J.G. has experimented with self-harm and, specifically, has engaged in cutting herself. She has also considered committing suicide. J.G. lives in fear of Hohenshell, whose anticipated release date from prison was approximately one month after trial.

         J.G. began attending therapy in 2013, at which time she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. At the time of trial, J.G. had generally discontinued attending therapy. Her therapist testified J.G. was able to decrease the frequency of her therapy due to her commitment to therapy in its early stages. The therapist testified J.G.:

will go through periods of time of being more stable emotionally, and then she will have things come up that will be triggering in terms of what she went through, and then we'll see an increase in symptoms, and then we'll meet again for a while and work towards stabilization, and then we'll meet less frequently.

         J.G. continues to experience triggering events, nightmares, and panic attacks; suffers from anxiety; and has difficulty learning. J.G.'s therapist testified the mental-health issues resulting from her sexual assault have not resolved and will be with her for the rest of her life, but she indicated J.G.'s therapy has made her better able to cope with those issues. The therapist testified she expects J.G. will experience several triggering events throughout her life: when she initiates her first romantic relationship, becomes sexually active, gets married, or has children or grandchildren. The therapist responded in the affirmative when asked whether she anticipated J.G. will suffer from her underlying mental-health issues for the rest of her life.

         Prior to the foregoing events, J.G. and her parents were close. J.G.'s meaningful participation in her relationships with her parents waned after she was raped. J.G.'s therapist indicated in her testimony that this was a result of J.G.'s shame and her decreased ability to trust her parents or believe they can protect her from harm. J.G. now views all males, including her father, with contempt.

         When asked why the plaintiffs initiated a civil lawsuit against Hohenshell, J.G. testified, "When someone takes everything away from you, they shouldn't get to have anything either." Her father added, "Her power was taken from her. I wanted her to gain some back." He also explained:

I want to send a statement. I want this guy to pay. Two years and four months in jail is not payment to me-not even close-of what he's done to this little girl. . . . I want him to have nothing. . . . [H]e took everything from her. He should have nothing. I want . . . this to make the news. . . . [I]f just one person decides it's not worth doing this to a little girl, it would be worth all this.

         In November 2014, Hohenshell pled guilty to one count of lascivious acts with a child and five counts of providing alcohol to a minor in connection with the foregoing events. At the guilty-plea proceeding, Hohenshell entered his plea with a smirk on his face and a chuckle.

         In August 2015, plaintiffs filed a petition at law forwarding claims of: (1) assault, sexual assault, and battery; (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (3) negligent infliction of severe emotional distress; (4) negligent supervision; and (5) loss of services and consortium. In September 2016, plaintiffs moved for partial summary judgment with respect to liability on the assault-and-battery and intentional-infliction-of-emotional-distress causes of action, arguing Hohenshell's criminal convictions establish civil liability as a matter of law. Hohenshell did not file a resistance, even after the district court allowed him additional time beyond the deadline to file the same. The court granted plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment as to liability on the assault-and-battery claim but denied the motion as to the intentional-infliction-of-emotional-distress claim. Thereafter, Hohenshell, in responding to interrogatories, related that he did not dispute liability as to any of the claims but would only be disputing damages. Consequently, plaintiffs moved for summary judgment as to liability on all remaining claims. Hohenshell did not resist, and the court granted the motion.

         A jury trial was held in February 2017. During summation and closing arguments, plaintiffs' counsel spoke of how Hohenshell "took everything from" J.G., including her personality, her safety and trust, her childhood, and her virginity. He also argued Hohenshell stole J.G. from her parents. He reviewed the various harms to J.G.: the pain and suffering; loss of full function of mind and body, both past and during her future life expectancy of 64.17 years; and future life events that would trigger recurrence of pain. He asked the jury to award $30 million in compensatory damages for J.G.'s past and future loss of full mind and body and her physical and mental pain and suffering. He suggested that if Hohenshell's attorney were to argue the damages should be $5 million, perhaps the jury "should meet somewhere in the middle." He also told the jury they could go higher or lower than his request. For the parents' loss-of-consortium claims, he suggested $5 million be awarded to each parent. He argued Hohenshell's conduct in this case was not simply outrageous willful and wanton disregard for J.G., but it was a purposeful and deliberate attack on her. He then suggested that punitive damages could be between two and four times the compensatory damages, and that if punitive damages were too high in comparison to the compensatory damages award, they might violate due process.

         Counsel for Hohenshell acknowledged J.G. was the victim of a crime. He spoke of the criminal punishment his client has faced and the hardships he will face in the future. Counsel's only reference to any particular damage amounts was in relation to the type of evidence that would be expected for damages of $30, $50, or $100 million. "It would have to be amazing, unbelievable, incredible evidence that showed damage that could never, ever be repaired." He then pointed to a lack of evidence concerning medical records or medical bills and objective psychological, psychiatric, or neurological analysis. He acknowledged the therapist's testimony, but he focused on J.G.'s current stability and how well she is coping. He made no suggestion as to any appropriate damages award amounts, but with regard to punitive damages, he noted "our criminal court had handled that adequately."

         The jury awarded compensatory damages to J.G. in the amount of $50 million, $1 million in loss-of-consortium damages to each parent, and punitive damages of $75 million allocated as follows:

Past loss of mind and body (J.G.):
$15, 000, 000
Future loss of mind and body (J.G.):
$10, 000, 000
Past physical and mental pain and suffering (J.G):
$15, 000, 000
Future physical and mental pain and suffering (J.G):
$10, 000, 000
Past loss of consortium (Janice):
$750, 000
Future loss of consortium (Janice):
$250, 000
Past loss of consortium (Jeff):
$750, 000
Future loss of consortium (Jeff):
$250, 000
Total compensatory damages:
$52, 000, 000
Punitive damages:
$75, 000, 000
Total damages:
$127, 000, 000

         The next day, the district court entered judgment in the foregoing amount against Hohenshell. Thereafter, Hohenshell filed a motion for a new trial, contending: (1) the plaintiffs failed to present medical evidence to quantify the extent and nature of their damages, (2) the evidence was insufficient to support the jury's award concerning J.G.'s future loss of mind and body and her future physical and mental pain and suffering, and (3) "the total damages award . . . of $127 million is flagrantly excessive and raises a presumption that it is the product of passion or prejudice." The plaintiffs resisted. At a subsequent hearing, Hohenshell argued the evidence was insufficient to support the jury's awards of future damages and the verdict was a result of passion or prejudice. Apparently as a result of Hohenshell's vague contentions in his motion and oral argument, [2] the court questioned whether he was challenging the verdict as a whole or specific items of damages. Hohenshell responded, "I am arguing specific elements, both the future damages for loss of consortium, the future damages for the pain and suffering, and loss of mind and body of J.G." Hohenshell specified, because the evidence was lacking to support those items of damages, the jury's awards on those items of damages must have been the product of passion or prejudice. Hohenshell went on to argue that the awards on those items are just examples of passion or prejudice and "the totality of this award is so excessive that it is clear that the jury acted out of passion or prejudice."

         In its subsequent ruling, the court identified its understanding of the issues presented: "(1) whether there was insufficient evidence to support certain specific awards of damages; and (2) whether the verdict as a whole was the product of passion or prejudice." First, the court concluded the challenged awards were for noneconomic damages and the evidence was sufficient to support them. Second, the court concluded the jury's award of damages was not the result of passion or prejudice. Hohenshell appeals the order denying his motion for a new trial.

         II. Standard of Review

         "We review the district court's denial of a motion for a new trial based on the claim a jury awarded excessive damages for an abuse of discretion." WSH Props., L.L.C. v. Daniels, 761 N.W.2d 45, 49 (Iowa 2008) (quoting Estate of Pearson ex rel. Latta v. Interstate Power & Light Co., 700 N.W.2d 333, 345 (Iowa 2005)). "An abuse of discretion occurs when the court's decision is based on a ground or reason that is clearly untenable or when the court's discretion is exercised to a clearly unreasonable degree." Id. (quoting Pexa v. Auto Owners Ins. Co., 686 N.W.2d 150, 160 (Iowa 2004)). Appellate review for excessiveness of a punitive damages award on due-process grounds is de novo. See Wolf v. Wolf, 690 N.W.2d 887, 894 (Iowa 2005).

         III. ...


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