Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Hospital Maintains 2004 Civil Lawsuit Damage Caps Apply to Defamation Cases

Image of the Front Street entrance to the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center

The Supreme Court hears six cases during its last oral argument session of 2018.

Image of the Front Street entrance to the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center

The Supreme Court hears six cases during its last oral argument session of 2018.

A nurse at the center of a contentious unionization effort at a Stark County hospital was fired after an internal investigation. The allegations against her were later proved to be false, and the nurse won a $1.55 million defamation lawsuit against the hospital.

The company DHSC, doing business as Affinity Medical Center in Massillon, asserts the jury award of $800,000 in compensatory damages and $750,000 in punitive damages is too high. It maintains that caps on civil lawsuit damages that the Ohio General Assembly approved as part of a 2004 comprehensive “tort reform” also apply to defamation and should be lowered to $750,000.

The Stark County Common Pleas Court and the Fifth District Court of Appeals rejected the hospital’s argument and noted this was the first case in an Ohio court they could find that addressed whether the caps apply to defamation lawsuits. The Ohio Supreme Court will hear oral argument next week whether the caps apply to nurse Ann Wayt’s jury award for defamation.

Nurse Had Stellar Career Before Incident
Wayt was a registered nurse for 36 years and was hired in 1987 at one of the Massillon hospitals that merged to become Affinity. She also had a notable career at the hospital receiving only positive evaluations. She was nominated by Affinity for a nursing excellence award she won. Affinity featured her in advertisements, praising her excellence.

Wayt became frustrated with the hospital’s operations. In August 2012, she was featured in a pro-union poster during the nurse’s union drive, which was successful. Around the same time, the hospital launched an investigation of Wayt for alleged claims of patient neglect and falsification. Affinity fired Wayt and reported its finding to the Ohio Board of Nursing in an attempt to have her license revoked. After being fired, Wayt submitted 57 jobs applications and received only two replies, both from hospitals that didn’t hire her.

Wayt filed a federal lawsuit, and it was determined the facts of the investigation were false. Affinity admitted it knew the information was false but didn’t attempt to withdraw or correct the information sent to the nursing board. Wayt was reinstated to her position.

In November 2012, she filed a lawsuit in common pleas court alleging several claims, which led to the $1.55 million verdict against Affinity in 2015.

Hospital Pursues Caps
Affinity maintains that the harm caused by defamation is non-economic, similar to pain and suffering, and is covered by the tort reform caps in R.C. 2315.18. The hospital states the caps apply to non-economic damage awards in a “tort action to recover damages for injury or loss to person or property.” Affinity points to prior Ohio Supreme Court decisions that find injury to reputation is considered a personal injury, which would mean the caps apply to defamation claims because they are claims of injury to reputation that are not easily measured.

Nurse Points to State Constitution
Wayt cites Article I, Section 16 of the Ohio Constitution, which states in part that “[a]ll courts shall be open and every person, for an injury done him in his land, goods, person or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law....” Because person and reputation are separated by “or,” Wayt argues the state views these as distinct categories and that reputation cases aren’t personal injuries. She also asserts the tort reform act refers to damage awards associated with bodily injury, which furthers her argument that the caps were never meant to apply to claims of libel and slander.

Oral Argument Details
Arguments in the Wayt v. DHSC case will be presented on Aug. 1. It is one of six cases the Supreme Court will hear during two days of oral arguments on July 31 and Aug. 31. The Court’s session will be the last scheduled oral argument session of the year.

Oral arguments begin at 9 a.m. at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center in Columbus. All arguments are streamed live online at and broadcast live and archived on The Ohio Channel.

Case Previews Released
Along with the descriptions provided in this article, the Supreme Court’s Office of Public Information today released in-depth previews of the central arguments in each case.

Tuesday, July 31 Cases
A Brunswick man was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2013 murder of his mother. In his direct death-penalty appeal, State v. Tench, he makes 18 legal arguments. Among them, he challenges the trial court’s admission of statements he made to police. The death-row inmate maintains that some of those statements were obtained after he said he wanted an attorney. He also claims his cousin was acting as his attorney, and their discussion should have been inadmissible.

The case In re L.G. centers on the questioning of a 13-year-old student after a bomb threat was made in a Dayton school. The safety and security director for the city’s public schools interviewed the teen, who confessed to calling in the threat and was arrested. The trial court suppressed the student’s statements made to the director in the school gym, finding that the teen should’ve been read his Miranda rights before he was questioned. The prosecutor contends that the police, who also were in the gym, didn’t direct the questioning, and the director wasn’t an agent of law enforcement. Nor was the teen in custody when the director questioned him, the prosecutor maintains.

A Franklin County man sentenced to death in 1999 was assessed $2,127.50 in court costs. The state has been deducting funds from his prison account to pay the court costs since 2002, and he has paid $540. Citing a 2013 change in state law, the inmate asked the trial court to waive further payments, which was denied. In State v. Braden, the Court will consider the lower courts’ decisions, which found that since the death sentence became final before the effective date of the new statute, the law didn’t apply to his request related to court costs.

Wednesday, Aug. 1 Cases
A state board approved a certificate in 2012 for the construction and operation of a 91-turbine wind farm in Crawford and Richland counties. The operator received board approval to extend the certificate’s term, from January 2017 to January 2019. Nearby property owners argue in In re Application of Black Fork Wind Energy that the wind-farm operator used the wrong process to ask for the extension. The operator had to amend its certificate, and amendments require a formal application and investigation, the property owners assert. The board counters that extending the certificate’s expiration date was procedural, not an amendment. The operator notes that it has since received an additional extension, to January 2020, using the amendment procedure.

In 1988, a Cleveland man was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In 2008, the offender was able to have one piece of evidence tested for DNA — the jacket he allegedly wore while committing the murder, which revealed five small traces of the victim’s blood. In State v. Bonnell, the inmate asserts that the state withheld evidence from the crime scene that can exonerate him. The prosecutors reported to the trial court that county officials have searched extensively and cannot locate the other items. The Supreme Court will consider whether the man is entitled to a hearing where he can question the prosecutor and others to determine if the evidence was actually lost or is being concealed.