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S.H. v. Cannon

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District

September 20, 2016

S.H., Appellant,
JAMES R. CANNON, Respondent.

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF COLE COUNTY The Honorable Daniel R. Green, Judge.

          Before Victor C. Howard, Presiding Judge, Lisa White Hardwick and Edward R. Ardini, Jr., Judges.

          Lisa White Hardwick, Judge.

         S.H. appeals from the judgment in favor of James Cannon on her action to recover damages caused by childhood sexual abuse. S.H. contends the circuit court erroneously applied the law in denying her claim because Cannon's guilty plea to statutory rape and statutory sodomy conclusively established that he caused her harm and that she was entitled to damages. For reasons explained herein, we affirm.

         Factual and Procedural History

         In 1995, when S.H. was 10 years old, her mother married Cannon. Thereafter, Cannon lived in the same household with S.H., her mother, and her siblings. In 2001, Cannon pled guilty to charges of statutory rape, under Section 566.032, [1] and statutory sodomy, under Section 566.062.

         In 2011, S.H. filed an action against Cannon for damages for childhood sexual abuse under Section 537.046. In her petition, S.H. alleged that Cannon began grooming her for sex in 1996, when she was 11 years old. She averred that he began raping and sodomizing her when she was 12 years old and continued to repeatedly do so until she was over the age of 13 but under the age of 14. S.H. further alleged that Cannon was arrested in 1999 and then pled guilty to charges of raping and sodomizing her in 2001, for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

         S.H. further alleged that, as a direct and proximate result of Cannon's childhood sexual abuse of her, she suffered from, and continues to suffer from, injury or illness in the form of shock, emotional distress, physical manifestations of emotional distress, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, disgrace, humiliation, and loss of enjoyment of life. Additionally, S.H. asserted that she was prevented and will continue to be prevented from performing her daily activities and obtaining the full enjoyment of life; has lost earnings and earning capacity; and/or has incurred and may continue to incur expenses for medical and psychological treatment, therapy, and counseling. S.H. requested compensatory and punitive damages.

         In his response, Cannon admitted only that he was married to S.H.'s mother, lived in the same household with S.H., pled guilty to charges under Sections 566.032 and 566.062, and was sentenced to seven years in prison. He denied that he groomed S.H. for sex, that he was caught repeatedly raping and sodomizing her, and that the criminal charges were for "raping" and "sodomizing" her. Cannon also denied all of S.H.'s allegations concerning the injuries or illnesses that his alleged actions caused her.

         S.H. waived her right to a jury trial. The case proceeded to a bench trial in December 2013. S.H. offered the testimony of her sister and her own testimony. S.H.'s sister testified that, for a couple of years in the 1990s, Cannon used to make her leave the room and take her siblings with her so that he could be alone with S.H. S.H.'s sister testified that, while the abuse was going on and for a couple of years afterwards, she noticed changes in S.H.'s behavior. Specifically, she said that S.H. became disobedient, smoked cigarettes, and gained weight, and she noticed a change in S.H.'s self-esteem. Cannon did not cross-examine S.H.'s sister.

         S.H., now 28 years old, testified that Cannon forced her to engage in acts of vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse with him when she was between the ages of 11 and 13 years old. She testified that, while the abuse was going on, she "just shut down" emotionally and that, as a result of the abuse, she underwent counseling for six months to a year. S.H. stated that the sexual abuse put a lot of stress on her and caused her to have low self-esteem, no motivation, nightmares, and trouble in relationships. She testified that she is presently married and considering having children, works at Wal-Mart, has a degree from a technical college, and is going to college online to obtain another degree. S.H. asked the court to award her $5 million in compensatory damages and $500, 000 in punitive damages.

         Cannon cross-examined S.H. about the counseling she obtained and the frequency of her nightmares. She said that she started counseling six months after Cannon was arrested. As for her nightmares, S.H. testified that she had one "a couple of months" before the trial in this case. Before that, the last time she had a nightmare was about a year ago. Cannon did not offer any evidence. In closing arguments, Cannon first contested his liability, asserting that the statutes to which he pled guilty to violating - Sections 566.032 and 566.062 - were not among the statutory sections listed in Section 537.046 upon which a cause of action for childhood sexual abuse could be based. Cannon then argued that S.H. failed to present sufficient evidence to support an award of compensatory damages for physical injury or psychological injury or punitive damages.

         The court subsequently entered its judgment stating that, after considering the evidence and exhibits offered at trial and the credibility of all of the witnesses, it found in favor of Cannon. S.H. appeals.

         Standard of Review

         In this bench-tried case, we will affirm the circuit court's judgment unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law. Murphy v. Carron,536 S.W.2d 30, 32 (Mo. banc 1976). We review legal issues de novo, without any deference to ...

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