Monday, December 15, 2014
C.A. Upholds Award to Girls Molested by Carlsbad Teacher
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A judgment requiring the Carlsbad Unified School District to pay more than $2 million to two girls who were molested by their third grade teacher has been affirmed by the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Div. One Friday certified for publication the Nov. 19 opinion by Justice Gilbert Nares. The court held there was substantial evidence to support a San Diego Superior Court jury’s findings that the district had actively discouraged the minors’ parents from filing a tort claim, and that the children would incur future medical expenses as a result of the molestations.
Jurors concluded that the teacher, Raymond Firth, was 60 percent responsible for what happened at Pacific Rim Elementary School, and that the school district’s negligent failure to supervise Firth was 40 percent responsible.
Joint and Several
One plaintiff was awarded $200,000 for future medical expenses, and $1.6 million—the district’s share being $640,000—in noneconomic damages. The other plaintiff was awarded $200,000 in future medical expenses, and $2.5 million—the district’s share being $1 million—in noneconomic damages.
Firth, according to news accounts, pled guilty in 2010 to two counts of sexual battery and one count of false imprisonment. He spent 22 months in prison before being released in March 2012, and did not attend the civil trial.
The criminal charges related to three students who were in Firth’s classes during the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 school years, two of whom sued. Lawyers for the girls argued that the district should have removed Firth from the classroom years earlier following complaints about his behavior with his second- and third-grade students.
The district attacked the lawsuit as untimely because the plaintiffs did not present a statutory tort claim to the district within six months of the molestations. The families responded that they promptly reported the molestations to school officials, but were repeatedly told—both by CUSD and the prosecutor—not to discuss the case with anyone other than police, prosecutors, social workers, and therapists, lest they injure the chances of a successful prosecution.
The jury, which received special instructions on the issue of equitable estoppel, found that the plaintiffs had detrimentally relied on the district in delaying the bringing of their claim, and that they did bring the claim within six months after the district’s interference ended.
In concluding that those findings were supported by sufficient evidence, Nares wrote:
“CUSD’s repeated instructions to stay silent, coupled with the threat that prosecution of their daughters’ attacker would be endangered if they did not comply, exerted a powerful influence on the parents’ actions. At trial, the parents testified to the intimidating effect of the CUSD’s statements. Both J.’s mother (Christina) and E.’s mother (Eliza) said that they did not speak to anyone about the possibility of civil claims against CUSD because they had been told by CUSD administrators not to discuss the molestation with anyone. “
No Need to Mislead
The justice rejected the argument that estoppel did not apply because CUSD did not mislead the parents into believing they had more time in which to consider civil remedies. “Equitable estoppel does not require factually misleading statements in all cases,” Nares wrote, citing cases in which threats, concealment, or warnings to a child by an adult were held sufficient to invoke the doctrine.
Nor, he went on to say, does the fact that the parents could have heeded the district’s instructions, and still presented a claim without talking to a lawyer, preclude application of estoppel. The fact that they could not both adhere to the district’s warnings and seek legal advice was sufficient, Nares explained.
Los Angeles attorneys David Ring of Taylor & Ring and Holly N. Boyer of Esner, Chang & Boyer represented the plaintiffs. The San Diego firm of Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz represented the district.
The case is J.P. v. Carlsbad Unified School District, D062912.
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