Jury Trial: A.R. v. North Eastern Services, Inc.

Our client, A.R., was just four years old when she was sexually assaulted at the workplace of North Eastern Services, Inc. ("NES") by an NES employee. NES is a government contractor that is paid substantial sums of taxpayer money to care for people with disabilities. NES's employee was a meth addict who had previously been fired by one of NES's competitors for sexually abusive conduct. NES was negligent in the hiring of the employee because it failed to conduct a proper employment interview, check the employee's references, or conduct a drug test. NES was also negligent in the employee's training and supervision because he never received much training and he was virtually unsupervised during his employment.

NES's owners rent apartments to NES's clients in residential neighborhoods. NES sets these places up in a way that avoids the need to obtain permits or otherwise announce their presence. A.R. lived near one of these homes. NES never informed the neighbors that its workplace was unsafe for neighbor children. On the contrary, NES used the neighbor children in the treatment plans of its clients without the knowledge or consent of the children's parents. Thus, the door to NES's place of business was always open and children were lured in with a kiddie pool, cartoons, and candy.

On the day of the attack, NES sent a supervisor to work with the employee/perpetrator for the first time in over two months. We don't know for sure how A.R. came to be inside NES's place of business. But the supervisor said she had a terrible feeling when she saw her subordinate lead A.R. into a bathroom. Even so, NES's supervisor did not intervene. Instead, she turned her back and continued vacuuming.

We worked this case for six long years. On the eve of trial in 2012, the Utah Supreme Court agreed to hear an interlocutory appeal in which we prevailed (see here). We finally tried the case to a jury in October 2015.

The trial was hard-fought and dramatic. NES's top executive and 30(b)(6) representative repeatedly contradicted his own deposition testimony, so the jury got to enjoy the spectacle of seeing him say one thing live and then the exact opposite on video. NES opened the door to damning impeachment evidence that showed, contrary to NES's claims, that its failure to check references and train and supervise its employees was a widespread problem. NES adamantly claimed that its employees never work double or triple shifts--and then had to admit on cross that its employees worked as much as 24, 48, and even 72 hours straight without stopping. Halfway through the trial, NES filed a motion to appoint a guardian ad litem for our client--a bizarre trial tactic (particularly since our client was pursuing her case through her parents who had been duly appointed as her conservators), calculated to force our client to accept NES's latest settlement offer.

We submitted the case to the jury at about 4 p.m. on Friday. The jury returned a verdict at about 9:30 p.m. They found NES liable. They found damages in the amount of $12.5 million. They allocated 12% fault to NES. That means NES was responsible for $1.5 million in damages. Most of the fault went to the perpetrator, who is serving 15 years to life in prison. I believe NES should have been held responsible for much more than 12% fault. After all, it hired the perpetrator, brought him into the neighborhood, and then failed to supervise him or at a minimum intervene to stop him from attacking our client. In essence, NES carelessly brought a wolf into a henhouse. Who do you blame under those circumstances? NES or the wolf? At best, I believe NES was 50% responsible. That being said, we respect the jury's decision.

This was a record-breaking verdict in Utah for this type of case! A.R.'s parents are proud that they didn't take the money that was offered and quietly go away. They took a stand for their daughter. They hope the case will help protect other children by drawing attention to dangerous, poorly-run companies like NES that operate in residential neighborhoods, often without the neighbors even knowing they are there. At a minimum, insurance defense attorneys can no longer claim that Utah juries are just too stingy and unsympathetic to award serious damages in sex abuse cases.