Lawsuit Interest Reduced in Priest Sexual Abuse Case
By Phil Ray
October 6, 2006
Hollidaysburg — The Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese must pay $202,191 in interest on punitive damages awarded to a former Altoona man who was sexually molested by a priest about 20 years ago.
The amount is a victory for the church. The attorney representing victim Michael Hutchison asked for $720,000 in interest.
Blair County Judge Hiram A. Carpenter Thursday sided with the diocese, citing a 2004 Commonwealth Court decision.
"We would be less than candid if we did not admit that we are somewhat troubled by this decision," Carpenter said.
The civil lawsuit involving the church and former priest Francis Luddy was filed in Blair County in 1987. It has been before the state Superior and Supreme courts three times in what Carpenter called "a tortuous route."
In the end, Hutchison, 38, who now lives in Ohio, is out 10 years worth of interest, even though his lawsuit was "completely successful," Carpenter stated in an unusual postscript to his seven-page opinion.
Carpenter explained that interest on a civil court award is not designed to punish a defendant — in this case, the diocese — but to protect the value of the jury's verdict as the case is appealed.
The potential interest is to cause a defendant "to think twice before filing an appeal merely as a matter of course," Carpenter said.
"In this case, there is no denying the substantial real loss to [Hutchison] by our present refusal to award interest," he said.
Hutchison's attorney, Richard M. Serbin of Altoona, called the judge's ruling an injustice to his client. Serbin referenced Carpenter's postscript to emphasize his point.
Serbin said he will appeal the latest ruling.
Eric Anderson of Pittsburgh, attorney for the diocese, said punitive damages of $1 million, plus $202,191 interest, already has been paid to Hutchison.
Anderson does not believe that the diocese benefitted improperly from money that belongs to Hutchison
"It was not the plaintiff's money," he said.
Carpenter cited a three-year-old Westmoreland County case in which a jury awarded money to a plaintiff but a state appeals court tossed out the verdict.
The verdict later was restored by the Supreme Court.
Commonwealth Court ruled that delay damages could not be awarded for the time period in which the original verdict was set aside by the courts.
In the Hutchison case, the Superior Court set aside the original verdict of more than $1.4 million against the diocese Sept. 4, 1996.
The Supreme Court restored part of the verdict in 1999, and that part was paid to Hutchison.
The question as to whether a jury could impose punitive or punishment damages of an additional $1 million wasn't decided until March 22 — in Hutchison's favor.
An appeal of Carpenter's decision means it could be another couple of years before the Hutchison-Luddy case is resolved, Anderson said.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468 or email@example.com
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