Monday, December 4, 2006
Little League Baseball Not Liable for Molestations by Coach, C.A. Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The governing body of Little League Baseball is not responsible for repeated molestations of two young athletes by a volunteer coach and umpire, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Public policy does not support holding Little League Baseball, Inc. responsible when the national organization did not sponsor any activity at which the molestations took place and had no part in selecting the molester as a coach or umpire, Justice Thomas Hollenhorst wrote Thursday in an unpublished opinion.
Norman Watson, a former coach and umpire in the East Baseline Little League in the San Bernardino County community of Highland was sentenced to 84 years in prison, after pleading guilty in 1998 to 39 counts involving sexual misconduct with five children between 1990 and 1996.
His case was featured in a Sports Illustrated cover story and in other media, including the Oprah Winfrey television show, on which two men appeared and said they had been molested by Watson.
The suit rejected Friday was brought by former East Baseline players Jimmy and Garrett Hickman, who testified that they were molested by Hickman on multiple occasions during their teen years in the 1990s. The molestations, they said, occurred at a local high school field; at a local store where Watson worked; in Watson’s car; at the Garrett home, where Watson was an occasional visitor; and at the house of friends of the Hickmans, but never during any Little League activity.
They alleged that the lack of screening procedures on the part of the national organization at that time enabled Watson to establish a relationship of leadership and trust, even though, it was later discovered, he was a pedophile who had been treated at Patton State Hospital while absent from his paid position as the league’s umpire-in-chief during a portion of the 1993 season.
The plaintiffs’ parents testified that they had no idea Watson was molesting their children and that they assumed the local league had checked his background, although no one told them it had.
The national organization adopted a policy requiring local leagues to conduct background checks for the first time in 2003. An East Baseline league official, who had been told by Watson that he was in jail for gambling during his absence, testified that a background testing program was considered in 1997 but rejected because Little League Baseball “didn’t tell us to do it.”
Youth sports organizations in California can obtain criminal records checks for their volunteers and job applicants through the California Department of Justice under a law enacted in 1981.
Hollenhorst said Friday that the connection between the national organization and the molestations “was, as a matter of public policy, too attenuated to support imposing liability on Little League Baseball.”
He distinguished Juarez v. Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 377, which held that the national scouting organization might be liable for molestations by a local scoutmaster during “officially sanctioned scouting events, such as overnight camping trips” as well as at the scoutmaster’s home.
“Here, in contrast to the facts in Juarez, it was undisputed that none of the molestations occurred during any Little League-sponsored activity, Little League Baseball had no part in selecting local volunteers, and the molestation of the Hickmans did not begin for several years after Watson’s first association with East Baseline Little League,” the justice wrote.
Hollenhorst also noted that the national organization was unaware of Watson’s background, or of his association with the local league, until after he was arrested.
The case is Hickman v. Little League Baseball, Inc., E036838.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company