(CN) - The 8th Circuit upheld a jury's award of $4 million to a mentally disabled woman whom an employee at a Missouri residential facility may have anally raped.
Angela Lee had been a 22-year-old resident of the St. Charles Habilitation Center in Missouri for developmentally disabled individuals at the time of the attack in November 2007. Lee's mental illness had kept her confined in an institutional setting for years.
She went to the kitchen one day to find friend and employee Sheila Rice, but another employee, Albert Borders, was the only one there.
Borders claimed that he asked Lee if "she want[ed] something, like her rice cakes, and she said no." He said Lee then followed him into the storage area where they had consensual anal intercourse.
But Lee told a nurse that Borders would not let her leave, and dragged her back into the storage area. He then allegedly turned her around, and Lee said she was too scared to resist.
A St. Charles counselor testified at trial that Lee was "vulnerable to someone taking advantage of her for things including sexual contact," and "she would not really be able to appreciate or understand what it means to consent to engage in sexual contact."
The counselor also said that Lee's behavioral problems increased after the alleged assault, as did her threats to harm herself, and she had to move to a more restrictive facility.
A federal jury in St. Louis found for Lee and awarded her $1 million in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages.
The 8th Circuit affirmed the verdict and award Monday.
"We find the court's consent instruction was proper," Judge Jane Kelly wrote for the three-judge panel. "Borders' statement that 'she didn't yell rape or none of the other things as we were having sex' demonstrated the need to clarify what may constitute consent, particularly when mental capacity is at issue."
Borders meanwhile frequently changed his story, first denying that any sexual contact ever happened, so the jury was perhaps more likely to find his testimony lacked credibility, according to the ruling.
Finding that the damages award was not excessive, the panel declined to focus on similar cases where the jury did not grant the victim so much money.
"We acknowledge that this punitive damages award is far higher than others, but again, this case involves a particularly vulnerable victim who requires institutional care," Kelly wrote. "A simple comparison to other cases is unhelpful in this context."
Borders claimed Lee only "suffered minor injuries," but "the evidence presented at trial showed she experienced severe psychological harm," according to the ruling.
"Borders' behavior, as revealed by his own testimony, demonstrated his reckless disregard of Lee's wellbeing," Kelly added.