LITTLE ROCK — Judges with a federal appeals court had sharp questions Thursday about the size of a $66 million verdict awarded to two men who said they were beaten and forced to fast while they were children and members of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries.
The former ministry members, Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna, won the jury verdict in June 2011 after a three-day trial in federal court in Texarkana over a lawsuit they filed against the church’s leader, Tony Alamo.
The jury awarded Calagna and Ondrisek $3 million each in damages for pain, suffering and mental anguish and $30 million each in punitive damages.
Alamo’s attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, argued in an appeal that the size of the damages were excessive.
During oral arguments at the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, members of a three-judge panel challenged attorney W. David Carter of Texarkana, Texas, who represents Calagna and Ondrisek, to refute that argument.
In an audio recording of the arguments posted on the appeals court website, the judges can be heard noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “few awards exceeding a single-digit ratio between punitive and compensatory damages” could be found constitutional under the Fifth and 14th Amendments, which protect against the taking of property without “due process of law.”
Saying the standard for damages is even stricter when compensatory damages exceed $1 million, one of the three judges on the 8th Circuit panel challenged Carter to cite a case in which an federal appeals court upheld punitive damages that were even double the amount of compensatory damages.
“I cannot,” Carter said.
Carter argued, however, that the Supreme Court’s rulings don’t prohibit large punitive-damages awards in cases of “extremely reprehensible” conduct.
“This is about as egregious conduct as you can imagine,”Carter said.
Carter noted that Alamo ordered John Kolbeck, described as Alamo’s “enforcer,” to beat Calagna and Ondrisek on multiple occasions with a wooden board as punishments for supposed misbehavior.
Alamo also verbally abused the boys, forced them to listen to cassette tapes of his “rebukes” of ministry members and encouraged members to report infractions, Carter said.
“Every aspect of their life was controlled,” Carter said.
Kolbeck also was named as a defendant in the lawsuit. After Kolbeck, who was wanted on battery charges in connection with one of the beatings, failed to respond to the suit, U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes entered a default judgment against him in October 2009.
Barnes awarded Ondrisek and Calagna $500,000 each in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.
Kolbeck died of heart failure at a house near Louisa, Ky., in January 2011.
Hall asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant to reduce the $66 million verdict against Alamo, but Bryant refused, saying the award was justified by Alamo’s “particularly reprehensible” conduct.
In the appeal, Hall also argued that the jury should have been instructed that Arkansas law allows parents and guardians to use “reasonable and moderate discipline ... for purposes of restraining or correcting” a child.
The law says the discipline should not include “any act that is likely to cause and which does cause injury more serious than transient pain or minor temporary marks.”
Carter said Bryant ruled that the law “did not apply to the facts” of the case against Alamo.
“These young men were beaten with boards by adults until their rear-ends were bleeding, until they passed out, until they vomited or until the board broke,” Carter said Thursday.
The lawsuit was filed in November 2008, two months after the Arkansas State Police and FBI raided the ministry’s compound in Fouke.
Arrested five days after the raid, Alamo, now 77, was convicted by a jury in 2009 of five counts of taking underage girls across state lines for sex in violation of the federal Mann Act. He was sentenced by Barnes to 175 years in prison.
The panel of judges who heard arguments Thursday consisted of James Loken of Minneapolis, Raymond Gruender of St. Louis and Duane Benton of Kansas City, Mo. Loken was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and the other two were appointed by President George W. Bush. The judges took the case under advisement and said they would rule at an unspecified later date.