By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A state appeals court on Tuesday ordered a lower court judge to reconsider awarding $1.5 million in damages to a woman who sued three Illinois men for allegedly gang-raping her in a Milwaukee hotel, a ruling the men’s attorney says could lead to a reduced award.
Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Thomas R. Cooper originally awarded the woman $1.03 million in compensatory damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages.
The 1st District Court of Appeals upheld the compensatory award but sent the punitive damages back to the circuit court, saying the judge must clarify whether the men are jointly or individually liable. If they’re individually responsible, the judge must factor in their personal finances.
The men’s attorney, Nicholas C. Zales, said if they’re found individually responsible, their meager finances could open the door for a reduced award. Still, he said he considered the ruling a loss for his clients, who have never gotten a chance to make their case that the sex was consensual.
“Better than nothing, I guess,” Zales said of the ruling.
The woman’s attorney, Christopher Stawski, said he believes the punitive damages should stand regardless of the men’s wealth because the alleged rape was horrific.
“It was so outrageous,” he said.
The Associated Press has chosen not to name the woman because she claims she is a sexual assault victim. The AP also has chosen not to name the men because they haven’t been charged criminally.
It’s unclear why no charges were brought. Zales said he wasn’t certain, but believed there wasn’t enough evidence to mount a criminal case. Stawski said police wrongly approached the case believing the sex was consensual and failed to collect the proper evidence.
Milwaukee Police spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz had no immediate comment. A message left at the Milwaukee County district attorney’s sensitive crimes unit wasn’t immediately returned. Patti Wabitsch, the assistant Milwaukee prosecutor who handled the case, has transferred to Ozaukee County and said she didn’t remember why she chose not to file charges.
People can still bring civil lawsuits even if prosecutors decline to file charges. The woman filed one in 2008, alleging the men drugged her in a Milwaukee bar in June 2007. She woke up in a hotel with the men, who sexually assaulted her for hours. They videotaped the assaults and produced a DVD of them.
They also took pictures with the woman’s cell phone and sent them to her contact list. The woman still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, the documents said.
She won a default judgment against them after only one of them appeared for the default hearing, and they hired an attorney only 45 minutes before the hearing on damage amounts.
The men argued on appeal the judgment should be erased because they were unfamiliar with Wisconsin’s legal system. Zales said they didn’t have enough money to hire a lawyer and didn’t know how the civil process worked.
They contended that the punitive award was excessive and the judge should have considered their financial status. They also argued that the evidence supports only about $30,000 of the $1.03 million compensatory damages.
The appeals court refused to vacate the judgment, finding that the men let the legal process slide beyond reason. The court also ruled that the punitive damages weren’t excessive, noting the woman endured an hours-long ordeal and still suffers psychologically.
The court went on to say if defendants are found individually liable, their wealth must be considered in the punitive portion of the judgment. Cooper’s ruling was unclear on liability, the appeals court said, and ordered the judge to decide on joint or individual responsibility. If the judge decides they’re individually responsible, he must hold a hearing to review their finances.
As for the compensatory damages, the court found the evidence was more than sufficient to support them.