Supreme Court Sends Altoona Abuse Case Back to Lower Court

Associated Press
March 23, 2005

Pittsburgh - A court must reconsider whether a $1 million punitive damage award issued by a jury in a priest sex abuse case can stand.

The state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Superior Court erred when it threw out punitive damages in a case against the Roman Catholic Altoona-Johnstown diocese.

The lower court threw out the damages because the jury found only ordinary negligence against the employer. But the Supreme Court said punitive damages may be warranted if the evidence supports it, and directed the Superior Court to determine if the evidence does.

Richard Serbin, the attorney for Michael Hutchison Jr., had argued that an employer can be liable for punitive damages when its conduct is "reckless and abhorrent" in failing to control an employee.

Serbin hailed the ruling, which is the third time the state's highest court has sent the case back to the Superior Court and the second time for punitive damages.

"The Supreme Court in a strongly worded decision unanimously agreed with the legal arguments we presented. ... The Hutchison family has learned that justice is not always swift and that our judicial system requires a great deal of patience - 18 years," Serbin said.

A jury found that Francis Luddy molested Hutchison in 1983 and 1984 and awarded Hutchison $519,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. In October 2000, the state Superior Court upheld the verdict against Luddy, but threw out the punitive damages.

Luddy was Hutchison's godfather and parish priest. At trial, Luddy denied molesting Hutchison, but admitted molesting five other boys. He has since been defrocked.

The diocese maintained it didn't know of the abuse, but Serbin has said officials were aware.

A message left at Serbin's law office after business hours Tuesday was not immediately returned.

Rob Egan, a spokesman for the diocese, said the diocese would have no immediate comment because its attorneys hadn't reviewed the opinion.

The diocese has already paid $1.2 million in compensatory, interest and delayed damages, including the $519,000 in compensatory damages to cover Hutchison's counseling. Hutchison, now in his 30s, was last known to be living in Ohio.


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