A circuit judge in Berkeley County awarded more than $14 million Tuesday to a victim of child sexual abuse — one of largest ever such awards in a South Carolina child molestation case.
Judge Stephanie McDonald ruled that Kelly Waldron Bowles should receive $7 million in punitive damages and slightly more than $7 million in actual damages against her former step-father Donald Baxter.
The award ranks among the highest ever in such a case in this state, said attorney Joseph Griffith, a former federal prosecutor who represented Bowles. It followed an August non-jury trial between Bowles and Baxter in Berkeley County's Court of Common Pleas.
In a 2003 criminal proceeding, Baxter pleaded guilty of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, and he received a six year prison sentence, suspended upon two years probation.
"Even though he pled guilty, she (Bowles) felt he only got a slap on the wrist," Griffith said. "That was a motivating factor (in pursuing a civil lawsuit). She just did not feel like that was right. I didn't either. That's why I took the case."
McDonald found Baxter guilty of sexual assault, sexual battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Her award includes $3.5 million for past and future pain and suffering; $3.5 million for mental anguish; $162,145 for future medical expenses; and $7 million in punitive damages.
Baxter's attorney, James Jackson, could not be reached for comment late Tuesday as to whether his client will appeal.
Griffith said Baxter is not a wealthy man, adding, "It remains to be determined what we can recover."
Griffith also said the award cannot replace the childhood innocence that his client lost, adding she still suffers from her stepfathers' "despicable acts."
He said he was proud of how Bowles, who was abused over a 10-year period and who is now 27, stood up for her rights.
"She was truly inspirational in court, and, hopefully, her courage will inspire other victims to speak out and fight against child molesters," he said. "She just wants everybody to know what he did."
Griffith said this case, like the recent headline-grabbing incidents at Penn State University and at The Citadel, show that parents and others must be vigilant against child sexual predators.
"Hopefully, the court's award to Kelly will act to deter future potential child sex predators by showing them that their pocketbook will be affected as well as their liberty," he added.