Jury can award punitive damages for negligent supervision in molestation case against priest

(3/28/2005) - In a sex molestation case against a Catholic priest and diocese, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has vacated the Superior Court’s conclusion that punitive damages are unavailable, as a matter of law, in an action for negligent supervision. In Hutchinson v. Luddy, the Court on March 22 vacated the Superior Court’s order and remanded the issue to determine whether the evidence warrants the trial court’s awarding of punitive damages against Father Luddy, a Catholic church and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.

The case involved a charge of sexual molestation of a 10-year-old boy by a priest over an eight-year period. The plaintiff also alleged negligent retention and supervision against the diocesan parties. A jury in 1995 had awarded the plaintiff $519,000 in compensatory damages and also found that the conduct of all the defendants was outrageous and therefore awarded punitive damages totaling $1,050,000. On appeal to the Superior Court, a majority panel ruled that because Section 317 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts cause of action sounds in ordinary negligence, it cannot form the basis of punitive damages.

In review, the Supreme Court did not dispute the Superior Court’s conclusion that a showing of ordinary negligence is not enough to warrant punitive damages, however, the Court then said “neither is there anything in law or logic to prevent the plaintiff in a case sounding in negligence form undertaking the additional burden of attempting to prove, as a matter of damages, that the defendant’s conduct not only was negligent but that the conduct was also outrageous, and warrants a response in the form of punitive damages.”