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Personal Injury Hall of Fame -- Boy Scouts Liable For Troop Leader’s Assaults: $7 Million (Winner: Intentional Tort)

March 17, 2015

Case: John Doe v. Boy Scouts of America
Attorneys: Paul Slager, Jennifer Goldstein
Law Firm: Silver Golub & Teitell

Dozens of civil lawsuits are pending against the Boy Scouts of America across the country, many of them alleging sexual abuse by scout leaders decades ago. Few such cases have gone to trial before a jury.

But a 2014 Connecticut case resulted in a $7 million verdict against the Boy Scouts. It's believed to be the largest compensatory damages verdict against the organization.

A Waterbury jury awarded the money to a former Connecticut scout who claims he was sexually abused by his troop leader and an older scout in the mid-1970s. The jury found the Boy Scouts of America, based in the Dallas suburb of Irving, Texas, liable for compensatory damages as well as for punitive damages for recklessness.

The plaintiff's lawyers claimed the Boy Scouts knew for decades before the 1970s that child sexual abuse was widespread in troop activities across the country but did nothing to educate parents, troop leaders or scouts. In this case, the plaintiff said that, among other things, the sexual abuse led to long-running substance abuse problems.

"It's very important to our client both that the jury has publicly said the Boy Scouts should be held accountable for keeping this important information secret and also that the jury recognized how much his abuse has impacted his life," said one of the plaintiff's lawyers, Paul Slager, of Stamford.

Slager, who has another lawsuit pending against the Boy Scouts, said that it's hard to say how the Waterbury verdict will affect other claims against the Boy Scouts. "It's possible, however, that this case could help highlight that the emotional effects of child sexual abuse are very serious and long-standing," Slager said, "and that juries can learn about this during trials and understand how significantly this terrible experience can hurt someone's life."

The plaintiff, referred to in court papers only as John Doe, was a member of a New Fairfield troop in the mid-1970s. He testified that he was sexually molested three times by Siegfried Hepp, a long-serving troop leader from New Fairfield. In 2000, years after the abuse at issue in this trial, Hepp pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual touching of a minor and received a seven-year suspended sentence and 20 years of probation. He's now a registered sex offender.

Doe filed his civil suit against the Boy Scouts and the Connecticut Yankee Council, which oversees scouting in the southern part of the state. The jury ultimately found that the local chapter was not responsible for the abuse.

The plaintiff's lawyers alleged that the Boy Scouts knew for decades before the 1970s about widespread sexual abuse among the ranks of scoutmasters. Witnesses acknowledged that the Boy Scouts maintained thousands of secret files it called "the Confidential Files," dating to the early 1920s. These files were reportedly held in secrecy in locked cabinets in the Texas national headquarters.

The plaintiff's lawyers argued that rather than using the information in these files to inform and educate local troop leaders, parents and young scouts about the existence of sexual abuse, the national organization hid the information, partly out of concern for protecting the Boy Scouts' image.

The Waterbury trial lasted two weeks before Superior Court Judge Salvatore Agati. The jury deliberated for about seven hours over parts of two days before awarding the plaintiff $7 million in compensatory damages. The jury also found the scout organization was reckless in its conduct and should be held liable for punitive damages. The punitive damages were to be awarded at a later date.

The jury also found the Boy Scouts liable for a violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act.

Attorney Jennifer Goldstein, who tried the case with Slager, praised her client, saying he "had the courage to overcome his own fear to bring this claim in a public forum and to testify about the terrible experiences he had. … He brought this lawsuit partly because he knew it was important to confront this part of his own past, and partly because he wanted to show others that they can do this too."

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