JANICE and JEFF GRAY, Individually and as parents and next friends of J.G., Plaintiffs-Appellees,
JAMES LEE HOHENSHELL, Defendant-Appellant.
from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Jeanie K.
Hohenshell appeals a district court order denying his motion
for a new trial and upholding a jury's award of damages.
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
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.
by Tabor, P.J., and Mullins and Bower, JJ.
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 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
Background Facts and Proceedings
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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):
Future loss of consortium (Janice):
Past loss of consortium (Jeff):
Future loss of consortium (Jeff):
Total compensatory damages:
$52, 000, 000
$75, 000, 000
$127, 000, 000
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,  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."
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.
Standard of Review
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).