A judge yesterday threw out $1 million in punitive damages that a jury had awarded to a woman who said she was driven from her job as music director at a Lutheran church in Gaithersburg by a pastor whose alleged sexual advances she had rebuffed.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Durke G. Thompson said he was overturning the award because he had improperly allowed financial statements from the Rev. Rufus S. Lusk III to go to the jury, attorneys for both sides said. He ordered a new trial to determine what damages, if any, should be awarded to Mary Linklater, the plaintiff and former music director at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church.
The attorneys said Thompson also effectively trimmed $50,000 from $350,000 in compensatory damages that the jury had awarded, rejecting a finding that the church was individually responsible for a portion of those damages. The punitive award had been against Lusk, now a pastor at a church in Columbia.
The judge's decision to a great degree fulfilled a prediction by Mindy Farber, an attorney for Lusk and the church, who said after the jury came back in March that the $1.35 million award would "vaporize."
"We certainly think that it vindicated the church," Farber said yesterday, "and we're hopeful that in the end Reverend Lusk will be entirely vindicated as well."
One of Linklater's attorneys, Roland G. Schroeder, said he did not believe any error by Thompson during the trial required that the punitive award be set aside.
Still, Schroeder said, "We're quite confident that any jury that could be properly selected would be outraged by Pastor's Lusk's conduct, and we're very confident we'll get a sizable punitive award in the next go-around."
At trial, Linklater alleged that she was ostracized from the church because of a campaign of retaliatory harassment by Lusk and his allies. Her lawsuit alleged that, soon after his appointment as interim minister in 1999, Lusk began complimenting Linklater's appearance, trying to hold her hand and calling her at home at inappropriate hours.
She contended in her lawsuit that after she complained about his conduct, he delivered a series of sermons intended to discredit her by focusing on such topics as the sinful nature of bearing false witness.
Linklater quit her job in 2001.