Friday, June 28, 2013

California Jury Awards 5.6 Million Verdict for Sexual Abuse by Teacher of a Student At Chino Hills High School

The Los Angeles Times reported today (see story here) that a jury awarded a San Bernardino County teenager (now 18) approximately $5.6 Million for sexual abuse at the hands of her high school teacher in the matter of Emily H. v. Chino Valley Unified School District - San Bernardino County Superior Court Case No. CIV-RS-1105580.

 The allegations were that the girl's parents found inappropriate romantic emails from the teacher to their daughter and brought this to the attention of school administrators and that the school officials failed to investigate the matter or take appropriate action. Apparently, there was an attempt to simply transfer the teacher to a different school which, to me, is reminiscent of the Catholic church sexual abuse cases where priests were sent to alternate parishes rather than being fired.

Prior to trial there was a "final" demand made by the plaintiff's attorney of $2,000,000 and a "final" offer by the school district of $100,000.  This wide of a disparity in settlement demands and offers is not uncommon in these types of school sex abuse claims.  It is sometimes difficult to determine exactly what a jury may award for emotional distress to the plaintiff / victim.  However, I would say that, under these facts, it would be my opinion that the school district grossly underestimated the potential value of the claim.

The net verdict was $5,590,000 with an apportionment of $3,390,000 to the Chino Valley Unified School District and $2,200,000 to the alleged perpetrator (teacher John Hirsch).  This was based upon an apportionment of fault by the jury of 60% to the school district and 40% to the alleged sexual abuser.  While it is somewhat unusual to have a higher portion of fault placed on the employer rather than the assailant in these cases, this is within the purview of the jury under California law.

The theory of liability for the school district in this case was negligent supervision and/or retention of the teacher John Hirsch (their employee).  Under California personal injury law related to sexual abuse claims, this theory requires proof that the employee was unfit for their job, that the employer knew or should have known that the employee was unfit and that the employer's continued retention of the employee caused the plaintiff harm. Although there was no claim for punitive damages (or damages meant to punish) the employer in this case, it is also possible to claim these types of damages in sex abuse and assault civil actions if it can be shown by a slightly higher burden of proof ("clear and convincing evidence") that the employer either approved or "ratified" (implicitly approved) the wrongful conduct of their employee.