Home-Birth Disaster Supports Massive Verdict
(CN) - A Missouri religious group whose member died in a botched home birth ceremony must pay $108.6 million to her parents, a state appeals court ruled.
Misty Mansfield was a dispatcher at the Lee's Summit Police Department where she met police officer Caleb Horner. They married in 2004.
Caleb was part of a religious group led by his brother, John Horner. The group practiced "faith healing" rather than modern medicine, and the couple agreed that their children would be delivered at home without the help of medical professionals.
Misty went into labor on Dec. 2, 2006, but did not deliver the baby until six days later. Her "birth team" consisted of her best friend, along with Caleb and his sisters.
As the labor continued, Misty called a doula named Amber Walla, who told the birth team she was "not there as a professional in any aspect."
Walla said the baby was in a dangerous breech position. Caleb's sisters replied that Caleb and Misty's "unity" made that risk impossible.
The Horners' religion teaches that, "if the baby's husband and wife are in unity together, the baby will be head down."
Misty decided to go to the hospital, but Caleb prayed with her and then told Walla that Misty had changed her mind.
"We're not ready to give up on this yet," he told Walla.
The baby came out bottom first, was folded in half and got stuck, so the birth team started reading books about what to do and decided to perform an episiotomy.
Caleb cut Misty's vagina with a pair of unsterilized household scissors. The baby, a girl named Sydney, was stillborn. The cause of death as asphyxia associated with the breech birth.
Rather than call 911, the birth team summoned John Horner, a self-professed faith healer, who prayed over Sydney in an attempt to raise her from the dead.
Meanwhile, nobody was treating Misty's vaginal wounds. When the fire department arrived approximately nine hours later, Caleb said his religious beliefs would not allow him to let another man to look at his wife's vagina.
Misty's parents visited, but the Horners would not leave them alone with her. Misty called a chiropractor who advised her to go to the emergency room, but "she stated that they really did not want to do that."
Misty died on Jan. 9, 2007, of a severe infection that had spread throughout her body and organs. A medical examiner said she would have survived if she had been treated after her episiotomy.
Gail and Darrell Mansfield, the victim's parents, sued Caleb and John Horner and Caleb's sisters for wrongful death, accusing the defendants of being part of a "cult-like group."
John Horner's ex-wife, Karen Tadych, testified for the Mansfields that she had participated in the indoctrination of Misty into the Horners' religion.
She said she and John Horner had taught Misty that a wife must be totally submissive to her husband.
Tadych also testified that John Horner has a "messianic complex" and believes that he can raise people from the dead.
She added that John was involved in four other home births that resulted in the deaths of the infants, as well as the deaths of a child and an adult who eschewed medical care in favor of John's purported power to heal.
A jury in Jackson County, Mo., found Caleb 45 percent at fault, John 35 percent at fault and one of Caleb's sisters 20 percent at fault. The compensatory damages totaled $8.65 million, and punitive damages came to $100 million.
Though the defendants claimed that the large award showed "bias, passion and prejudice," a three-judge panel with the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the ruling and the damage awards on Tuesday.
"The Horners never identify, though, which improper evidentiary rulings and arguments they claim to have resulted in bias and prejudice," Judge Cynthia Martin wrote for the panel. "Simply claiming that the amount was excessive is not enough to warrant a new trial."
She added that the defendants used "intentional malice, trickery and deceit" by telling Misty that Caleb's sisters were midwives and that John had healing power.
"Given the reprehensibility of the Horners' actions as well as the goal to deter the Horners from similar conduct in the future justifies the 11 to 1 (damage) ratio so that, even considering the substantial compensatory damages awarded, substantial punitive damaged were also appropriate," Martin wrote
The defendants also failed to show that the Mansfields' attorney inflamed the jury with a closing argument in which he called John Horner "a despicable human being" and a "modern-day Jim Jones."
Also, the Mansfield's attorney compared John Horner to the recently deceased Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps.
"Punish him. I cannot put him in jail. I so wish I could," the attorney said.
Martin ruled that "we cannot conclude that the comparison of the Horners to two notorious religious leaders, while potentially objectionable, resulted in manifest injustice or miscarriage of justice."