Judge reduces fine against church

The woman who sued the Methodist church said a former minister raped her.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:33 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SPRINGFIELD — A judge has cut in half the amount of money the West Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church has to pay to a former music director but declined to overturn a jury’s finding that the woman had been raped by a former minister.

Greene County Circuit Judge J. Miles Sweeney ruled Monday that a $2 million jury award to Teresa Norris for compensatory damages could stand, but he reduced punitive damages from $3 million to $1 million. Sweeney said the conference’s assets of about $4.8 million made the damage award too high.

“Finally, we consider whether the church’s actions were so egregious as to justify a verdict that would basically put them out of business,” Sweeney wrote. “I find this is not so.”

Norris sued the conference, saying church officials had fair warning that the Rev. David Finestead had used sexually inappropriate language and actions. Complaints about Finestead were filed as early as 1996.

Norris alleged that she was raped by Finestead at Campbell United Methodist Church on March 25, 1998, while she worked there.

Finestead died soon after the jury’s June verdict. He was never charged with the assault and did not testify in the civil trial.

Steve Cox, a spokesman for the conference, said the reduction in the award will make a difference, but the organization will appeal Sweeney’s ruling.

“It literally makes $3 million available for ministries to those in need across the state of Missouri,” he said. “It is certainly good news.”

Still, he said the conference believes the jury’s verdict eventually will be overturned because of mistakes made during trial.

“This really just begins the appeals process in the courts,” Cox said. “But we’re also focused on doing ministry of compassion that has made the United Methodist Church a positive force in Missouri for 200 years.”

Norris’ attorney, Michael Fletcher of Kansas City, said his client would appeal the reduction of the award.

“Keep in mind, they could have settled the case for $750,000 the day of the trial,” he said.

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