... But state caps payout on punitive damage awards

ELYRIA Elyria's top cop could be on the hook for $2 million awarded to a police officer a jury
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

ELYRIA

Elyria's top cop could be on the hook for $2 million awarded to a police officer a jury determined was targeted by the chief.

The city's insurance company is prohibited by state law from paying punitive damage awards, and Elyria police Chief Michael Medders was ordered to dig deep to pay the officer who sued him.

If defendants in a lawsuit acted with malice or intent they can be held personally liable and forced to pay any punitive damage awards, said Dan Kelso, president of the Ohio Insurance Institute.

"Punitive damages are awarded when there's an intentional act -- an intention to do something wrong," Kelso said.

It's the difference between a driver accidentally rear-ending another car and deliberately ramming something, he said.

Medders was ordered by a federal jury in January to pay the $2.5 million, which includes $500,000 in compensatory damages the city's insurance will cover. The jury concluded Medders retaliated against police Officer Hetzel See, who as union president was a vocal critic of the chief. See also complained to the FBI about problems he saw in the department.

The jury ruled Medders violated See's right to free speech.

"The jury just found that his actions were truly outrageous, and that's the reason for the punitive damages," said Jillian Davis, one of See's attorneys.

Medders and his attorneys have refused to comment, but in motions seeking a new trial they contend there wasn't enough evidence presented to the jury to justify the $2 million punitive damage award.

"Such an amount is truly draconian and would bring about the financial ruin" of Medders, his attorneys wrote.

See's attorneys, on the other hand, argue that Medders' ability to pay the award doesn't matter, although they are negotiating a settlement with Medders that could resolve the case.

"You can only get so much out of a person," Davis said.