A Los Angeles jury apparently accepted the testimony of one expert and rejected that of another in awarding $3 million to each of two boys who were sexually abused by their third grade teacher. The school district that employed the teacher admitted responsibility for the sexual assaults.
Negligent Hiring and Supervision
Paul Chapel III was fired by a different school district in 1987 for making sexual jokes to students and showing them a sexually explicit video. Chapel lost a civil lawsuit as the result of that conduct. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) nevertheless hired Chapel in 1988.
Several years after he began working for the LAUSD, Chapel was prosecuted for molesting an 8-year-old during a sleepover. His teaching credentials were suspended and Chapel was transferred to an administrative position. His trial on the molestation charge ended with a hung jury. The District gave Chapel a new teaching position after his teaching credentials were reinstated.
Chapel was eventually arrested for sexually abusing four of his students. He was charged with thirteen counts of committing lewd acts against them. A judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison.
Two of those students sued the school district for negligence in hiring, retaining, and supervising Chapel. The lawsuit alleged that the school district ignored complaints it received from parents and other teachers about Chapel’s inappropriate conduct with students and failed to warn parents about those complaints.
The school district admitted its negligence. It contended, however, that the two students had already suffered psychological injury from other sources. It offered the parents of each child less than a half million dollars to settle their claims. The case went to trial when the plaintiffs rejected that offer.
The peril of using expert testimony to blame the mental health problems of sexual assault victims on other causes was highlighted by the LAUSD trial. In an attempt to minimize the emotional damage that the boys experienced, the school district relied upon a psychologist who is an expert in child trauma. Janine Shelby, an associate professor at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, interviewed the two boys. She blamed the psychological problems that plague one of the boys on his exposure to domestic violence between his parents, his mother’s postpartum depression, racism, and the death of a stepfather. The boy had behavioral problems in pre-school and was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in grade school.
During closing arguments, the attorneys for the boys criticized the district for attacking the boys with evidence of their prior disabilities. The jury may well have concluded that any trauma the boys experienced before they were molested made them more vulnerable to psychological damage caused by the molestations. Jurors may also have resented the implication that sexual assault victims who have suffered previous trauma deserve less compensation than victims who have not been previously traumatized.
Shelby also cited research to support her opinion that half of all trauma victims recover within three months. She admitted on cross-examination, however, that the research addressed adult responses to trauma and was not confined to sexual abuse victims.
The attorneys for the LAUSD criticized the plaintiffs’ expert, Beverly Hills psychiatrist Brian Jacks, for allegedly disregarding the research that Shelby cited. The district’s attorneys claimed that Jacks relied on his own “speculative” judgments about the impact of the sexual abuse on the young victims’ lives rather than research findings. While it is unclear how much weight the jury gave to the respective expert opinions, the size of the verdicts suggests that Jacks’ opinion, based on his assessment of the two boys, was more influential than opinions that Shelby based on research concerning the ability of other trauma victims to recover from their experiences.