Last month, a New Jersey appeals court overturned a trial court order dismissing a case against a Camden school. The case is being handled by Laffey, Bucci & Kent attorney Sam Reich. See C.O. v. Pine Hill School District Board, et al. (Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, October 26, 2017, unpublished opinion).
The unique case involves a young woman who was sexually abused by her friend’s father just before starting high school. The father was ultimately convicted of sexually abusing the woman when she was just 13 years old. In addition, the judge in the criminal case issued a restraining order after the father repeatedly drove by her house after criminal charges had been filed.
The following school year marked the start of high school in Camden, New Jersey, where both the victim and the abuser’s daughter were enrolled.
New Jersey School Abuse Law – Novel Theory of Liability
This case differs from other school sex abuse lawsuits in New Jersey, where a teacher or other school employee committed the abuse. In the case, the victim had already been sexually abused by the time she started high school.
The lawsuit against the school district involves claims that school officials created or directly contributed to a volatile situation by failing to prevent harassment of a sex abuse victim. One of the key allegations is that the school failed to separate the victim and the perpetrator’s daughter, even though school officials knew about the underlying criminal matter. The victim and the perpetrator’s daughter were placed in a class together and had lockers near each other. They also got into a physical altercation that resulted in suspension of both students.
The lawsuit also alleges that these circumstances caused the victim to suffer additional emotional suffering, which was tied to the sexual abuse by the friend’s father. The school, in essence, aggravated the victim’s emotional suffering.
The trial court granted the school’s motion for summary judgment, which would have resulted in a dismissal. However, Laffey, Bucci & Kent attorneys appealed the trial court’s ruling, and after an appeals hearing, the case was reversed in favor of the student.
New Jersey School Abuse Lawsuits Under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act
One of the critical issues on appeal was whether the victim met the threshold required by the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, i.e., whether she had suffered a “permanent and substantial injury” due to the school’s negligent conduct.
By way of background, a government entity like a school district can only be sued under specific circumstances, as set out in the New Jersey Tort Claims Act. One of the circumstances is set out in New Jersey Statutes Annotated Section 59:9-2(d):
No damages shall be awarded against a public entity or public employee for pain and suffering resulting from any injury; provided, however, that this limitation on the recovery of damages for pain and suffering shall not apply in cases of permanent loss of a bodily function, permanent disfigurement or dismemberment where the medical treatment expenses are in excess of $3,600.
The appeals court placed particular emphasis on the victim’s psychological expert report which found that between the time of the abuse and the victim’s high school years, the victim suffered post-traumatic stress disorder “characterized by anxiety, depression, crying spells, hypersomnia…” and that the PTSD was “the direct result of her sexual abuse at the hands of [the criminal perpetrator] and the bullying and harassment she endured as well as feeling unsafe at school and unsupported by school officials” (emphasis in original). Accordingly, the appeals court ruled that the school’s summary judgment motion should have been denied.
The defendant may still have time to appeal the appellate court’s ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Stay tuned.
A Note About State Versus Federal Law in New Jersey School Sex Abuse Cases
The case was filed alleging violation of state law, specifically, the New Jersey Tort Claims Act. In some instances, the facts and circumstances of the case may justify filing the lawsuit under a different New Jersey law, the New Jersey Child Sex Abuse Act or under federal law. Claims under the NJ Child Sex Abuse Act are usually filed in situations where a school acts in loco parentis (stands in the place of the parent), i.e., boarding schools.
Federal law claims are usually based on violation of a student’s constitutional or due process rights under the Civil Rights Act, Section 1983. These cases are usually successful where there’s evidence that the government entity created a dangerous condition, or exposed the student to a danger not otherwise encountered. In a 2016 U.S. Third Circuit case, L.R. v School District of Philadelphia, a kindergarten student’s lawsuit against a school was allowed where the student was released to an unknown third party who later sexually assaulted her.
New Jersey Sex Abuse Victims’ Lawyers – Offices in Cherry Hill, Atlantic City & Iselin
Laffey, Bucci & Kent has offices throughout New Jersey and represents victims of sexual assault against schools, doctors and churches. Contact us for more info or to obtain a free consultation. Click To Call
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