A recent $135 million verdict in Riverside County Superior Court raised eyebrows not just because of its unprecedented amount but also because of the implications it has for school districts and institutions across California.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the case and the legal issues surrounding sexual abuse cases involving teachers.
The case against Thomas Lee West and the Moreno Valley Unified School District
Two men filed a civil lawsuit alleging that they were repeatedly abused by their teacher, Thomas Lee West, while they were students in the sixth grade at Vista Heights Middle School east of Los Angeles in 1996. The lawsuit further alleged that the Moreno Valley Unified School District should have known that Thomas Lee West posed a threat to students.
After a civil trial, jurors in Riverside Superior Court decided that the Moreno Valley Unified School District was 90 percent responsible for damages, while Thomas Lee West was 10 percent responsible. As a result, the district was ordered to pay $121.5 million to the two men, only about 11 percent of which is expected to be covered by insurance.
"The psychological effects of the severe and pervasive abuse have left both men shells of who they would have been but for the abuse made possible by the District," said an attorney for the plaintiffs in a statement.
During a separate criminal trial, Thomas Lee West was convicted of committing lewd or lascivious acts with minors. He’s currently serving a 52 years-to-life sentence in Mule Creek State Prison.
Who’s liable when a teacher commits sexual abuse?
A striking element of the recent verdict was the allocation of responsibility, with the Moreno Valley Unified School District found 90 percent responsible for the damages, translating to $121.5 million.
The verdict underscores the importance of institutional accountability. When an employee of a school district, in this case, a teacher, commits an act of abuse, the district can be held liable if it is determined they were negligent in their duties.
Districts may be found negligent if they:
- Fail to adequately screen potential employees,
- Do not respond appropriately to reports or indications of misconduct,
- Do not have or enforce proper policies and training to prevent abuse, or
- Otherwise breach the duty of care owed to the student.
Establishing a school district's partial liability in an abuse case is crucial. School districts generally have more financial resources compared to the individual perpetrators, who frequently lack the means to fully settle a judgment.
Statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims in California
Millions of people are impacted by sexual abuse every single year in the United States.
According to the CDC, one in three women and one in four men experience sexual abuse. This is an alarming statistic, but in all likelihood, it actually underrepresents the prevalence of sexual abuse because many victims of abuse do not report the crime.
There are many reasons why a survivor may not report abuse, particularly right away:
- Fear of retaliation
- Fear of not being believed
- Not wanting a friend or family member to be prosecuted
- Fear that too much time has passed
Regarding the survivors in the Thomas Lee West case, court records indicate that they hesitated to report the abuse because of threats made by West, fears of enduring a court trial, and worries about societal perceptions.
Fortunately, California has been proactive in giving survivors of sexual abuse more time to come forward with their claims. In 2019, the state passed Assembly Bill 218, which extends the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Now, survivors can file a lawsuit against their abuser or the institution that may have enabled the abuse up to their 40th birthday, or within five years of discovering the abuse’s psychological injury or illness.
This change in law not only empowers survivors but also pressures institutions to adopt proactive measures and best practices in safeguarding the well-being of those in their care.
Learn more about what survivors should know about filing a civil sexual abuse claim, including statutes of limitation for every state.
While the $135 million verdict against the Moreno Valley Unified School District stands as a stark reminder of the gravity of such offenses, it's also a call to action. It emphasizes the need for institutions to be more vigilant, transparent, and accountable, ensuring that history doesn't repeat itself.
While monetary compensation can't undo the trauma survivors face, holding institutions accountable, understanding liability, and being aware of the legal rights of survivors, can collectively pave the way for a safer future for all students.