Expert: Verdict ups ante for public entities
By Stephen Maher
WENATCHEE -- A $3 million verdict this week in a lawsuit stemming from
the Wenatchee child sex-abuse investigations increases government
agencies' potential liability, a legal expert and plaintiffs' lawyers
"It is going to make some of these cases easier to bring," said Speedy
Rice, a Gonzaga University law professor and director of the school's
clinical law program.
But Wenatchee attorney Pat McMahon, who has defended the city in
sex-abuse litigation since 1995, doubts the verdict by a Spokane
County Superior Court jury on Tuesday will have much of an impact. He
said the decision is a victory for his client because the city wasn't
ordered to pay any of the $3 million.
"The city has gone to a jury twice now and won twice," said McMahon,
referring to the Spokane trial and a 1998 King County trial in which a
jury found authorities hadn't violated the civil rights of the same
Larry Erickson, executive director of the Washington Association of
Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, declined comment, saying the association
had not yet reviewed the verdict. Whatcom County Sheriff Dale
Brandland, association president, also declined to comment.
The Spokane County jury found that the city of Wenatchee was negligent
against eight plaintiffs and that Douglas County was negligent against
six plaintiffs. The jury ordered Douglas County to pay $3 million to
Honnah and Jon Sims. The other plaintiffs, including Pastor Roby
Roberson, his wife, Connie, and Donna Rodriguez, received no monetary
In a landmark decision last September, the state Supreme Court ruled
law enforcement agencies could be held liable for conducting faulty
child sex-abuse investigations. Douglas County and Wenatchee were the
first government agencies in the state to face trial since the ruling.
Rice said the $3 million awarded in the case is a staggering amount.
He said the figure may lead to more and larger settlements, in part
because government agencies won't "have the sense the law is going to
protect bad police work."
Tyler Ferkins, a plaintiffs' attorney from Auburn, said the figure
also may serve as a benchmark for juries.
The award was the largest to date from the Wenatchee cases, surpassing
the $1.57 million awarded in 1998 to state social worker Juana
Vasquez. A Chelan County jury found Vasquez had been retaliated
against for criticizing the 1994-95 investigations.
"It certainly got my attention," Rice said. "You don't see verdicts
like that very often here in Spokane. This is not what you'd consider
a high-verdict town. And you usually don't see that kind of verdict
against the government because people don't like the idea of paying
The Sims lawsuit is just one of numerous lawsuits and claims charging
authorities with a range of abuses during the Wenatchee child sex-
abuse investigations and their aftermath. At last count, 14 people
have lawsuits pending against the city, state, Chelan County and
others. Many allege officers were untrained and guilty of misconduct
and that the legal system failed to protect the innocent.
Other parties, including children who were once thought to be victims
and who were separated from their parents, are expected to file claims
soon, said Ferkins, whose firm is handling five of the pending
lawsuits. A claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.
A handful of lawsuits already have been settled out of court for more
than $2 million.
Since 1997, 18 people have had their original criminal convictions in
the sex-abuse cases overturned by higher courts or reduced as part of
plea bargains. Only one person out of the 43 arrested remains in
"It has taken years to get the damage (from overturned convictions)
reversed, and it will continue," Ferkins told the Associated Press.
Convincing a jury that law enforcement was negligent during the
Wenatchee investigations -- as plaintiffs did Tuesday in Spokane
County Superior Court -- is an easier standard to prove than civil
rights violations involving reckless or intentional conduct, said Rice
and John Stocks, another plaintiffs' attorney.
Plaintiffs just have to show a "preponderance of the evidence" is
weighted in their favor, Rice said.
"That means a jury can sit there and say, 'This is a close call, but I
think they did the wrong thing,'" Rice said.
But Rice cautioned that while the verdict may lead to more negligent
investigation complaints, it won't necessarily open the floodgates to
jury decisions against government agencies.
"They're not easy cases to get there (to trial)," said Rice, who
teaches civil law at Gonzaga. "But if a judge feels there is
sufficient evidence to go before the jury, then clearly the judge is
bothered by the conduct."
McMahon agrees negligence isn't a difficult issue for a jury to
find. But McMahon said the plaintiffs in the Spokane trial may have
had an easier time proving negligence because they had either been
acquitted at criminal trials or had their charges dismissed, creating
the impression the investigations and prosecutions were flawed.
That's not the case in some of the pending lawsuits, he said. Many of
those people were convicted and sent to prison -- although their
convictions were later thrown out or reduced.
Stocks disagrees, arguing the Spokane jury recognized the wrongs
committed by law enforcement. He believes that will set the tone for
future court proceedings.
"This indicates to me that this jury knew ... that these police
officers and sheriff's (deputies) were sloppy, careless, not thorough,
and breached their obligation to investigate a case properly," Stocks
said. "I cannot imagine a jury in this country that would not find
these police officers and sheriff's (deputies) negligent, which this
jury found across the board."
McMahon said the plaintiffs focused on Douglas County during the
Spokane trial. Former Wenatchee Police Detective Bob Perez launched
the investigations, but his initial reports on Sims and the Robersons
were turned over to Douglas County, which arrested and prosecuted
them. Perez's reports on Rodriguez were turned over to the Chelan
County Prosecutor's Office.
Sims and the Robersons were acquitted of child sex charges in
1995. Charges against Rodriguez were dismissed prior to her scheduled
That focus will change in future trials, said plaintiffs' attorney Bob
Van Siclen and others. Most of the pending lawsuits target the
Wenatchee Police Department, the Chelan County Prosecutor's Office and
public defenders retained by Chelan County.
"There is now a claim of negligence, and the city of Wenatchee has
been found negligent," said Roberson, who has been assisting numerous
attorneys bringing other sex-abuse litigation. "It's more than a foot
in the door at this point. As insignificant as the city would like to
make it seem, they're dead meat."
Stephen Maher can be reached at 664-7154
or by e-mail at email@example.com