The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is transferring cases away from its primary law firm after evaluating the lead counsel’s defense tactics in sexual abuse lawsuits against school officials. One instance contributing to the LAUSD decision to change attorneys involved controversial use of an expert witness in defense of a lawsuit filed by an elementary school girl with a low IQ who was victim of sexual assault in an LA area school.
LAUSD Attorney Uses Controversial Expert
In May of 2013, attorneys representing the Los Angeles Unified School District defended the district against sexual abuse allegations filed by a 9-year-old girl with a low IQ who claimed she was the victim of assault by a boy at her school. The LAUSD was found financially liable for failing to protect the girl, and during the penalty stage of the civil trial the lead attorney for the school district, W. Keith Wyatt, made an interesting, and controversial, expert witness decision. Wyatt called to the stand Dr. Stan Katz who theorized that the young girl’s low IQ may act as protection from the trauma of sexual assault, thus warranting fewer damages from the school district.
Dr. Katz, a psychology expert witness, testified that the girl’s IQ, between 64 and 70, could suggest that she lacked the mental capacity to suffer serious depression or trauma from the incident. During his expert testimony, Katz responded to a question about whether or not the girl’s mental disability could act as a protective factor by saying, “There’s a relationship between intelligence and depression. What happens is the more you think about things, you can ruminate, you can focus on things, you can look at the complexities of the matter and become more depressed.” Although Dr. Katz did not deny the girl suffered trauma, his testimony indicated that her suffering was reduced because of her mental inability to dwell on her experience.
Separate experts who reviewed Dr. Katz’s testimony have openly disagreed with him, going so far as to argue that in some cases a mental disability could enhance the trauma that victims experience. More significantly to the LAUSD, the jury was unconvinced and ordered a significant damage award.
Jury Awards $1.4 Million to LA Girl Sexually Assaulted at School
According to David Ring, attorney for the young victim, “the jury was offended, they were disgusted and they thought it was unbelievable that an expert witness could come in and say something like that.” Accordingly, jurors awarded the girl and her family $1.4 million in damages, which is significantly higher than the $10,000 – $12,000 Wyatt suggested. Dr. Katz’s expert testimony in last year’s case not only was unsuccessful in arguing for a lesser damage award, but seemed to have caused the LAUSD position harm by repulsing jurors to the idea he advanced during trial.
LAUSD Changes Legal Counsel
Last week, the LAUSD cut ties with attorney Wyatt citing statements he made in another sexual abuse lawsuit which argued that a 14-year-old girl was mature enough to consent to sex with her 28-year-old teacher. Although the decision is over a year removed from his controversial use of Dr. Katz as an expert witness, the lawyer’s dismissal seems to be the result of a sweeping analysis of his defense strategy in sexual assault lawsuits. Wyatt’s recent comments dismissing the 14-year-old victim of teacher abuse and his use of an expert witness to argue that a 9-year-old with a low IQ suffered less trauma from sexual assault can serve to remind other attorneys in similar situations that there is a fine line between a legitimate argument and statements that will alienate and offend a jury to the detriment of the client.