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News & Press: State Bar News

Supreme Court to hear oral argument in $35M sex abuse verdict

Thursday, June 20, 2019  
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The Montana Supreme Court on Thursday announced that it will hear oral argument on an appeal of a Sanders County jury’s $35 million verdict in a child sex abuse claim against the Jehovah’s Witness church.

The oral argument will be on Friday, Sept. 13, at the Northern Hotel in Billings during the State Bar of Montana’s Annual Meeting. An introduction to the argument will begin at 9:30 a.m., with the argument starting at 10 a.m.

The case centers on a Thompson Falls woman who claimed church officials covered up earlier abuses by a congregation member against a girl in the congregation. The church removed the man, Maximo Reyes, from the congregation but reinstated him a year later.

The victim in this case later told church officials that Reyes repeatedly molested her over a two-year period, starting when she was 8, after his return to the church.

The church raises four issues on appeal, among them arguing that the district court was wrong to rule Montana’s statutory cap on punitive damages unconstitutional. The Montana Legislature set the limit on punitive damages at $10 million or 3% of a defendant’s net worth, whichever is lower. The jury’s award included $31 million in punitive damages.

The church also argues that the district court was wrong to grant summary judgment on the victim’s negligence claim, that there was insufficient evidence of actual malice to justify the punitive damages, and that the punitive damages violate federal standards.

Attorneys for the church filed their opening brief in late May.