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Eric T. Chaffin
Eric T. Chaffin
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Holding Institutions Liable in Child Sexual Abuse Cases

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In February 2012, a Connecticut jury awarded a $1 million verdict to a boy who was sexually abused by a priest 30 years ago. The plaintiff brought claims against the Archdiocese of Hartford, arguing it was negligent and reckless when appointing the priest, who had a history of child abuse.

Though trying a child sexual abuse case against an institution can be more challenging than trying one against the perpetrator, it can also result in more substantial compensation for the plaintiff. Understanding the steps necessary to prove such a case can help increase the odds of securing a result the client deserves.

Negligent Hiring and Negligent Supervision

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. The American Psychological Association (APA) adds that other research indicates about 300,000 children are abused every year in the U.S., though the problem is likely underreported.

Institutions such as public schools, camps, sports groups, churches, and children’s organizations may be held accountable for incidences of sexual abuse if they are found to have participated in negligent hiring and/or negligent supervision.

Parents trust these institutions to do their due diligence in hiring and supervising teachers, coaches, counselors, religious leaders and even volunteers, who are responsible for the care and safety of their children. A child sexual abuse lawyer who can show that such an institution either knew or should have known that the perpetrator was a danger is likely to achieve a good result for his or her client.

Key Findings Possible Through In-Depth Discovery

During the discovery process, attorneys can gather a significant amount of evidence to support their case. In addition to standard discovery requests, attorneys may look to see where the institution may have cut corners to save money, such as neglecting to perform appropriate and thorough employee background checks, or taking steps to cover up the incident to avoid tarnishing its reputation.

Asking such questions as, "who knew about it?," "when did they know?," and "what did they do about it?," can help provide more clarity as to the institution’s actions or lack of actions related to the perpetrator or the reports of abuse. Additional documents such as internal records, crime information, and, in cases involving religious institutions, reports to the Vatican, can all be useful.

Other Steps in Presenting a Strong Case

Depositions of witnesses are best taken on video, as they are considered more powerful than written transcripts. Taking numerous depositions may reveal lax employee screening or attempts at a cover-up. Though counselors and psychologists can also be helpful, forensic psychologists are generally considered to better for plaintiffs, as they are often more adept at handling tough defense questioning.

Attorneys are also advised to use focus groups. Since a jury will ultimately decide the case, it’s important to see how your evidence affects an impartial crowd. Feedback before you set into the courtroom can be invaluable.

Focus on the Institution’s Choices

The bottom line in helping victims recover damages and obtain justice in a child sexual abuse case is to help the jury see that the institution was at best, negligent, and at worst, indifferent to the risks present.

The good news is that more of these cases have been brought to light in recent years, with victims feeling vindicated in their efforts. In December 2012, for example, a Los Angels Superior Court jury awarded a $23 million verdict to a former Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) student. The lawsuit involved claims against the student’s then fifth-grade teacher, but the LAUSD was ordered to pay about 30 percent of the verdict.