Thursday, February 8, 2007
S.C. Will Not Consider Liability for Little League Over Molestations
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Fourth District Court of Appeal ruling absolving the governing body of Little League Baseball of responsibility for repeated molestations of two young athletes by a volunteer coach and umpire was left standing yesterday by the state Supreme Court.
Div. Two ruled in December that 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.
No justice at the Supreme Court’s weekly conference in San Francisco yesterday voted to review the ruling in Hickman v. Little League Baseball, Inc., E036838.
Brothers Jimmy and Garrett Hickman claimed that the lack of a national screening program for Little League volunteers made it possible for Norman Watson to molest them repeatedly.
Watson, who worked 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.
The 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 Hickman brothers testified that they were molested by Watson 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 Hickman home, where Watson was an occasional visitor; and at the house of friends of the Hickmans, but never during any Little League activity.
Proper screening, they contended, would have disclosed that Watson 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.
Justice Thomas Hollenhorst, in an unpublished opinion for the Court of Appeal, said 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 a case holding that the Boy Scouts of America might be liable for molestations by a local scoutmaster. The cases were different, Hollenhorst explained, because the scoutmaster allegedly abused his victims during official events such as overnight camping trips and because the BSA participated in the selection of the scoutmaster, whereas “Little League Baseball had no part in selecting local volunteers.”
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company