Abortion foes assessed $1.21 million in damages

May 10, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A jury in Houston raised significantly the financial risks for abortion foes who seek to shut down clinics by tacking an extra $1.01 million in damages yesterday onto an initial verdict last week of $204,585.

The combined award of $1.21 million is the largest jury verdict ever against clinic blockaders in the wars that rage in courtrooms after angry, sometimes violent confrontations on sidewalks outside abortion facilities.

The case was stirred by attempts to close 10 abortion clinics in the Houston area, a campaign that started just before the Republican National Convention in that city in 1992, and continued up to the time of trial. One clinic was attacked with acid even as jury deliberations in the case began late last month.

Operation Rescue and Rescue America, the two militant anti-abortion groups that were at the center of the case in Houston, vowed to appeal the verdict. "It's a vindictive and hateful verdict," said Richard Schmude, the Houston attorney who defended the abortion foes.

Judy Reiner, a spokeswoman for the Houston clinic that won the damages, Planned Parenthood of Southeast Texas, said the $1 million-plus in added, or "punitive," damages sends "a very clear message that people who engage in this conduct will be held accountable."

The Texas case has been monitored closely by both sides in the abortion controversy, as a symbolic and practical test of the legal consequences of clinic blockades. The case was pursued by 10 clinics and eight doctors in the Houston area. Most of them were represented at the trial by Kathy Patrick, a Houston lawyer.

The case was based solely on state law: claims of disruption of the clinics' business, invasion of privacy, and conspiracies to commit those violations.

Clinics in recent years have begun to use federal law, too, to try to punish the anti-clinic campaigns. In January, the Supreme Court allowed clinics to use a tough federal anti-racketeering law against blockaders.

After a seven-week trial and a week of initial deliberations, the Houston jury on Friday awarded the Planned Parenthood clinic $204,585 to cover its actual costs for security precautions it took when the blockades began. That clinic was the only one in the case to ask for money damages.

The initial "compensatory damages" verdict was against Operation Rescue; its former leader, the Rev. Kenneth Tucci; Rescue America, and its Houston leader, Don Treshman.

Then, after two more days of discussions, the jury yesterday decided to add the $1.01 million in punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to punish wrongdoers for unusually harmful behavior, and to make an example of them to others.

Although the Houston verdict's size set a record, it was not the first time a jury had awarded a clinic damages because of blockades. A Philadelphia jury in 1987 awarded a clinic there $44,748 in actual damages and $48,000 in punitive damages against 24 individuals who had entered and damaged that clinic.

Operation Rescue has faced tens of thousands of dollars in fines, usually assessed by courts for violating orders against blockading. In recent years, however, Operation Rescue and other abortion foes have succeeded in limiting or nullifying court orders that seek to protect clinics from peaceful demonstrators.

The Supreme Court is weighing a Florida case that may determine how far the First Amendment's protection of free speech extends to sidewalk protesters outside clinics.

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