Nonprofits Liable for Staff Who Sexually Abuse Kids
By Gregory J. Volpe
Courier Post [Trenton NJ]
August 9, 2006
State law does not shield nonprofits from liability for staff members who sexually abuse children, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The court ruled that the American Boychoir School in Princeton does not get protection from the state's Charitable Immunity Act because it applies only to negligence claims.
John W. Hardwicke Jr. sued the school and several employees in 2001, claiming the music director, Donald Hanson, other employees and students abused him when he was a child attending the school in the early 1970s. Hanson now lives in Canada and no longer works at the school.
Writing the 5-1 majority opinion, Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz said state law "immunizes simple negligence only, and not "other forms of aggravated wrongful conduct, such as malice or fraud.' "
Hardwicke, 49, of White Hall, Md., thanked the court for a decision he says will give victims of sexual abuse as children their day in court.
"For five years, we've had a lawsuit against the Boychoir School, and we've never had an opportunity to present any evidence at all, and the school has just been able to claim for five years that they are simply not responsible for the care of children that are entrusted to them," Hardwicke said. "And finally now, we've got a court decision that says: That's not true, you are responsible, and you can be held accountable in civil court."
In a statement, the school's president, Donald B. Edwards, said the school is sorry that Hanson abused students and hopes the case will be resolved.
"It will be a difficult and painful experience for a trial court to determine 35 years after the fact the truth of what happened to Mr. Hardwicke and the degree of the school's liability," Edwards said. "We hope it will be possible to resolve the case in a manner that allows Mr. Hardwicke to get on with his life and allows the school to advance its educational mission of building lives of achievement and character through the power of music."
The decision, coupled with a state law signed in January that increased the civil liability for nonprofits whose employees sexually abuse children, has created more protection for children than existed when Hardwicke and several other Boychoir students were molested, said Hardwicke's lawyer, Lawrence Lessig.
"If a school hires a teacher and doesn't take steps to determine whether that teacher has had any charges or substantiated claims of sex abuse against them, then the institution is responsible," Lessig said.
Jay Greenblatt, the lawyer representing the school, said the court's ruling places too much liability on employers for employees' actions outside their scope of employment.
"It's almost strict liability," Greenblatt said. "It's extremely difficult to defend against, and it's a slippery slope."
Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Woodbridge, who pushed for the law that restricted charitable immunity in sex abuse cases, was pleased with the court's ruling.
"Sexual abuse cannot be tolerated, and the shield that the school tried to employ, that as an institution they should not be held accountable, was obviously overturned and not upheld by the Supreme Court," Vitale said.
Reach Gregory J. Volpe at email@example.com
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