$1 Million Penalty Is at Issue in Church Suit
The high court's answer in the case of Hutchison v. Luddy will affect more than the treasury of the 120,000-member Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, or even the state's seven other Latin Rite Roman Catholic and two Byzantine Rite Catholic dioceses.
If lawyers for the diocese are correct, Pennsylvania law has never permitted imposing punitive damages against employers for negligently failing to supervise a rogue employee.
Louis C. Long, a lawyer for the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, urged the seven justices to affirm an October 2000 ruling by a three-judge state Superior Court panel. The panel struck down $1 million in punitive damages awarded by a Blair County jury in 1994 to Michael S. Hutchison Jr. and his mother, Mary Hutchison.
To do otherwise, Long argued, would be a "monumental shift in the law of Pennsylvania, to allow punitive damages in negligence cases."
Richard M. Serbin, the Altoona lawyer who filed the suit on behalf of the Hutchisons in 1987, presented the justices with an equally stark assessment of the legal issues at stake.
Serbin cited what he characterized as a lack of case law underlying the Superior Court's decision, and argued that it must be reversed: "The Superior Court, I would suggest, has failed to apply longstanding, established precedent of this Court in applying punitive damages."
The seven justices asked few questions during 30 minutes of oral argument in their ornate wood-paneled courtroom here. They gave no indication when they might rule. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court and federal appeals courts, the state Supreme Court has sometimes taken years to decide appeals.
Yesterday's argument was the second time the case has been before the state's high court. In 1999, the court affirmed the jury's award of $519,000 in compensatory damages to Hutchison and his mother.
All but $19,000 of those damages will fund lifelong psychotherapy for Michael Hutchison, now 35, who sued over what he said was a history of regular sexual abuse from age 11 to 17 by his godfather and parish priest, the Rev. Francis E. Luddy Jr.
The diocese paid Hutchison the compensatory damages - swelled by interest to $1.2 million - last October after the Supreme Court refused to reconsider its decision affirming compensatory damages.
Michael Hutchison, who is mildly retarded and the legal ward of his mother, was not in court yesterday, but Mary Hutchison was. "Michael still believes that the truth, in the end, will win out over anything else," she said.
The trial judge, Common Pleas Court Judge Hiram A. Carpenter 3d of Blair County, hailed the jury's award of punitive damages as fair and rational: four months of church receipts minus operating expenses, a sum the judge said was clearly designed to punish but not devastate the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
The case remains the first and only lawsuit against the church involving allegations of a predatory priest to result in a jury verdict, and is one of a handful nationwide to involve punitive damages.
Beyond questions of Pennsylvania law and punitive damages, the Hutchison case is considered important enough that the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the state's 10 dioceses, intervened as a "friend of the court."
Conference lawyers contend that affirming punitive damages against a religious organization would threaten constitutional guarantees of separation between church and state.
The Altoona-Johnstown Diocese itself never raised a constitutional defense to punitive damages. Under appellate rules, the diocese has waived that issue and may not raise it now.
The waiver did not bind the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, however, and in a brief filed in February, conference lawyers argued that to impose punitive damages against a religious organization would be to let the government tell the church how to discipline its priests.
In the 1994 trial, the jury heard 11 weeks of testimony detailing how Father Luddy sexually molested Michael Hutchison as well as two of Michael's brothers and five other boys.
Father Luddy, now 60, lives in a suburb of Albuquerque, N.M., near a Catholic clinic for troubled priests to which he was sent by diocesan officials in 1987 after Mary Hutchison contacted church officials about Father Luddy's conduct.
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