Court of Appeals of Texas, First District, Houston
On Appeal from the 236th District Court, Tarrant County, Texas[*]. Trial Court Case No. 236-227641-07.
For APPELLANT: Noah E. Webster, HILL GILSTRAP, PC, Arlington, TX.
For APPELLEE: Brian W. Butcher, NOTEBOOM - THE LAW FIRM, Hurst, TX.
Panel consists of Justices Keyes, Higley, and Massengale.
This appeal arises from a suit to recover damages for sexual assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. After a bench trial, the court awarded the appellee, P.G., damages for past and future mental anguish, future medical expenses, punitive damages, and prejudgment interest. Appellant James Leonard Finley challenges the propriety of these awards, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support each class of damages. He further contends that the trial court's award of punitive damages was improperly based on a contradictory finding of both malice and gross negligence. Finally, he argues that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding prejudgment interest for prospective and punitive damages (a point that P.G. concedes).
We conclude that the record presents adequate evidence to support the damages awarded by the trial court. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment, modified to limit the award of prejudgment interest to P.G.'s past mental anguish damages.
P.G. was twenty-one years old and working as a cashier when he first met Finley, who was then a pastor with the First United Methodist Church in Euless. Finley noticed a cross that P.G. was wearing and struck up a conversation with him. He asked to meet further with P.G. to talk
and pray. In the months that followed, Finley grew close to P.G. and his mother.
Although he was twenty-one, the evidence at trial showed that P.G. was immature and childlike. He lived at home with his mother, a widow. Slow to develop, sensitive, and often bullied at school, P.G. had always had trouble making friends despite his trusting nature. He and his mother were thus gratified when Finley entered his life as a friend and father figure. Growing up, P.G. had been religious and a frequent participant in church activities; accordingly, he and his mother appreciated that Finley was a pastor. P.G.'s mother described church as " his refuge."
Apart from his naiveté, P.G. was also hampered by cognitive difficulties that contributed to his immature condition. His mental health counselor, Robin Evangelisto, described him as lacking " the emotional and cognitive functioning" of a normal adult his age. She affirmed a discrepancy between his " physical age and mental age" and characterized him as naive, unsophisticated, and possibly learning disabled. Kimberly Althouse, a detective in the family crimes unit who conducted an investigation of the events giving rise to P.G.'s claim, described him as having " cognitive disadvantages" and as being " extremely immature for someone his age." Interacting with P.G., the officer said, " was just like working with an adolescent . . . like a 12, 13-year-old boy."
In the months that followed their initial meeting, Finley became a familiar presence in P.G.'s life. Finley provided gifts of money and food, bringing breakfast from McDonald's once a week at a time when P.G.'s family was experiencing financial troubles. Finley also began referring to P.G. as " Sweetie" and " Sweet Boy." In her testimony, Althouse described this behavior as " grooming," a process typical of sexual predators in which a conspicuously vulnerable person is targeted for exploitation. She further explained that Finley had been successful in gaining P.G.'s trust and making him feel comfortable.
On the morning of December 1, 2005, Finley brought breakfast to P.G. at his family's apartment. Finley hugged him and grabbed his buttocks. The two then sat down to eat and watch television together. While P.G. was cleaning up after breakfast, Finley groped P.G.'s penis from outside of his clothing. Finley then tried to reach inside his pants, but P.G. said " no, not yet." At this point, Finley ceased his advances and left the apartment. In his own testimony, Finley admitted that P.G. had never given any indication that he wanted to engage in sexual relations with him. He further acknowledged that on the morning of the incident he had asked P.G. whether he was sexually experienced, and he received a negative answer.
P.G. called the police, and Althouse arrived that day to investigate. She was struck by P.G.'s marked immaturity for a person of his age. He appeared " very, very upset, very childlike." He was crying and shaking so much that she had difficulty understanding him; she noted that he was " really uncomfortable" using the word " penis" and discussing the morning's events. She further described him as fearful and in a state of severe emotional distress. While testifying, P.G. described himself as having felt " disgusted," " gross," and " like . . . a whore."
As part of her investigation, Althouse arranged to record a phone call between P.G. and Finley. During the conversation, Finley apologized for his actions, explained that he had grabbed P.G.'s penis because " he wanted to," and expressed a wish to perform fellatio on P.G. for his first time. After hearing this conversation, Althouse obtained a warrant for Finley's arrest.
Later in the day, Finley returned to P.G.'s apartment and tried to enter. The police were called and intercepted him as he was leaving the complex. Finley was then arrested.
P.G. brought suit alleging battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of the criminal sexual assault statute, Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 22.011 (West 2011). After a bench trial, the judge entered judgment in favor of P.G. He also made findings of fact and conclusions of law substantiating P.G.'s claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and battery. These included findings of both malice and gross negligence on the part of Finley. Exemplary damages, damages for ...