A Missouri appeals court upheld a $9 million jury award against a caregiver whose husband raped and impregnated a developmentally disabled woman in St. Joseph.
The verdict was the 17th largest plaintiffs’ win of 2015, as tracked by Missouri Lawyers Weekly.
The lawsuit alleged that Alberta Hughes had taken the plaintiff, a then-33-year-old woman identified in court documents as Jane Doe, to her home and left her alone with Hughes’ husband, a convicted felon, in 2012. The woman has limited communication skills, so family members didn’t realize what had happened until she became pregnant.
Tony Hughes pleaded guilty to felony sexual assault in early 2014 and was sentenced to seven years in prison. His brother is the plaintiff’s biological father, making Alberta Hughes her aunt by marriage, though the parties disputed the extent of any relationships.
The Court of Appeals Western District ruled Tuesday that a Buchanan County circuit judge had been correct to leave the verdict intact despite Alberta Hughes’ claims that she had official immunity. Hughes was employed by a county-funded entity that initially was named in the suit but later dismissed on sovereign immunity grounds.
Governmental officials who must exercise discretion when fulfilling their duties, such as emergency responders, often are granted official immunity so that their decisions can’t be second-guessed in court. Such immunity doesn’t apply, however, when the official is carrying out ministerial duties that don’t require discretion.
The Western District said Hughes’ duties were spelled out in an individual care plan that prevented Hughes from administering services in her own home or allowing third parties to transport the plaintiff, leaving her no discretion. The court also said that, unlike emergency responders, “Hughes was not required to make snap decisions or act decisively to resolve an immediate problem.”
The court also noted that the jury found Hughes had tried to cover up her decision to allow her husband to be alone with the plaintiff.
“The conscious choice to lie demonstrates the bad faith implicit in her actions that would serve to strip her of any immunity that may have existed,” Judge Ted Ardini Jr. wrote for the court. Judges Tom Newton and Cynthia Martin concurred.
The court otherwise upheld the verdict, brushing aside claims that the $3 million in actual damages and $6 million in punitive damages were excessive. The court noted that “while the subject matter of this case might well ignite a passion in the common juror,” the punitive award was only twice the amount of the compensatory award, which itself was less than what the plaintiffs’ attorneys had sought in closing arguments.
The case is Doe v. Hughes, WD79064.