Sometimes the best solution to a difficult situation is no litigation at all. Even in a child-abuse case – one of the worst kinds of personal injury cases – going to court might not be the most effective way to resolve an issue and help the family.
That’s another thing people don’t always understand: When a case finally does go to court, the primary goal is not to punish somebody who’s done wrong. It’s to make sure a family can put its life back together.
Three-year-old Ryan* attended a private, church-operated preschool. When he left the school one day, his parents noticed red marks across his backside. It looked like he’d been hit, and Ryan didn’t want to talk about it.
With encouragement from his parents, Ryan finally told them what had happened. A parent volunteer at the preschool had repeatedly hit his bare backside hard with a ruler, leaving the marks.
Ryan’s parents went to the school to ask what happened. They were stonewalled: the school told them nothing had happened. When Ryan’s parents continued asking questions, the school headmaster said they’d be cited for trespassing if they came around again. All Ryan’s parents wanted was to know what had happened to their son.
So Ryan’s parents called Cooper & Elliott. We advised them that it wasn’t time for civil litigation yet, but they should get Child Services involved. The investigator Child Services assigned, however, turned out to be a member of the church that operated the school, which clearly tainted the investigation.
The police got involved, but detectives couldn’t get anyone, including the parent volunteer, to admit to any wrongdoing. The church circled the wagons, made certain its employees told the same story, and got a doctor to say that the marks on Ryan’s body were probably some kind of reaction to a cleaning agent used on toilet seats. With that element of reasonable doubt, the police and the prosecutor weren’t willing to pursue the matter, and the investigation ended.
Throughout all of this, Ryan was having a hard time after the beating he had received. Even though his parents had immediately removed him from the preschool, he was afraid to be left alone, and he’d gone back to wetting the bed. Ryan’s mom, Angela*, also felt horribly guilty. She believed that if she’d been a stay-at-home mom instead of sending Ryan to preschool, none of this would have happened. So she quit her job to be with her kids, even though it put a dent into the family’s income.
The only avenue left now was the civil justice system, where we could obtain school documents, take depositions, and find out for certain what had happened to Ryan.
What civil litigation accomplished for Ryan’s family
Our investigation revealed troubling things. We discovered that the church didn’t have the incident reports and other documents they’re supposed to keep in cases like this. Even more disturbing, we learned that another child got a fractured skull while the classroom was being monitored by the same parent volunteer who allegedly hit Ryan.
So we went to the church with a settlement offer. We asked them to pay for anger management counseling for this parent volunteer; we asked them to institute an ongoing child abuse awareness program for their teachers; and we asked for money to cover counseling for Ryan. The total value of what we wanted was a few thousand dollars, which seemed more than reasonable in view of the harm.
They turned us down flat. After Angela quit her job and more time had elapsed, we added an additional request: we asked them to pay for Angela’s lost income to resolve the situation once and for all. They turned us down again. That left us no choice but to take the church to court.
After hearing what had happened to Ryan and what the church had done afterwards, the jury awarded Ryan and his family compensatory damages, punitive damages, pain and suffering, and lost wages – all told, more than five million dollars. The case allowed Ryan to obtain counseling and for Angela to stay home with her son – and even start a business – without hurting the family’s finances. The decision also sent a strong message that the community will not tolerate the type of behavior the church exhibited.
This was a family that did everything by the book. They didn’t rush to court. They went to the school first, then to a government agency, then to the police. Frequently, that’s the advice we give, and not just in child-abuse cases. Sometimes the civil justice system shouldn’t, or can’t, be brought into play. But when people pursue appropriate channels and nothing happens, or if the system breaks down along the way, that’s when civil litigation offers the best way to make things right.
*Names in this article have been changed to protect our client’s privacy.
The outcome of any client’s case will depend on the particular legal and factual circumstances of the case.