LOS ANGELES (AP) — A jury ruled Tuesday that the Los Angeles Unified School District must pay a boy molested by an elementary school teacher $6.9 million - among the largest awards in the history of the school system.
The decision comes as the district's attorneys were attempting to quickly settle high-profile sex abuse suits involving nearly 200 plaintiffs stemming from Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, who is alleged to have fed his students semen and has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct.
The jury found the district liable for the repeated molestation of the 10-year-old student in 2008 and 2009 by teacher Forrest Stobbe at Queen Anne Elementary School in the city's mid-Wilshire district, the Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/UPFrC5) reported.
In September 2011, Stobbe pleaded no contest to lewd acts on a child and continuous sexual abuse of a child under 14.
But the civil lawsuit was concerned only with the liability of the district.
Stobbe was a veteran teacher with a clean criminal record, but plaintiff's attorneys argued that administrators including the school's principal should have heeded complaints about Stobbe that preceded the molestation.
School attorneys argued that despite the horrible ordeal of the victim, there was no credible evidence known to the district that Stobbe posed a threat.
"We take our duty to protect our students seriously and are continually looking for ways that we can strengthen our screening and reporting processes to ensure that no child is ever hurt in this way," said general counsel David Holmquist. "Although we can't change what happened in this case, we remain committed to doing everything in our power to promote healing and improve trust with those impacted."
The ruling was especially significant with the Miramonte lawsuits looming, setting a high bar financially and demonstrating a jury's willingness to blame the district for the actions of a teacher. Berndt also had a clean record, but parents had raised concerns about the way he had photographed children.
"Some of the same issues in the Miramonte case are highlighted here," said attorney Don Beck who represented the victim's family in the Queen Anne case. "The same lack of monitoring teachers, the same lack of supervision that allowed these events to happen."
District General Counsel David Holmquist said earlier this month that he hoped to settle all the Miramonte lawsuits and legal claims by the end of January, but some attorneys and plaintiffs have recently dropped out of settlement negotiations, and a Los Angeles judge last week lifted a litigation stay, allowing the cases to move toward court.