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Verdict over $1,000,000


Westminster County, Maryland

The plaintiff, the father of a young Marine killed in Iraq, sued the defendant church and its members for emotional distress caused by the church’s use of his son’s funeral to protest homosexuality. The defendants contended that their conduct was protected by their rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religion under the First Amendment.

The evidence revealed that the plaintiff’s son, a 20-year-old Marine, was killed in the line of duty while in Iraq. His funeral was held at a Catholic church in his hometown in Maryland. Members of a Kansas fundamentalist church, none of whom knew the plaintiff’s son, demonstrated at the funeral, using it as a forum to protest homosexuality. They brandished signs stating, among other things, "God hates America," "You are going to hell," and "Semper fi fags." Several weeks after the funeral, the church posted an "epic" video on its website claiming that the plaintiff’s son was raised for the devil and taught to defy God.

The plaintiff sued the defendants for non-economic damages under Maryland state law claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion on seclusion and conspiracy. The plaintiff testified, sometimes in tears, about his emotional and physical 3 3 reaction to the defendants’ demonstration at his son’s funeral and the story posted on the church website. Plaintiff presented testimony from two experts, his treating physician and a psychologist, as evidence that the defendants’ conduct caused him depression, emotional distress, sleeplessness and anger.

The defendants claimed that their actions were constitutionally protected free speech and the exercise of religion. They presented expert testimony as to the "fire and brimstone" nature of their religious beliefs. However, their expert did not testify that the defendants’ choice to demonstrate at the plaintiff’s son’s funeral had any religious or Biblical connection.

The jury awarded the plaintiff $2.9 million in compensatory damages and $8 million in punitive damages. In post-trial motions, the defendants moved to set aside the jury’s verdict. The trial court upheld the compensatory damage award, but reduced the punitive damage award to $2.1 million, citing BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, ________ SupCt ________ (________).

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