Thursday, June 3, 2004

State court widens liability for abuse

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a school board can be held responsible in child abuse cases against employees if schools fail to report earlier abuse by the same perpetrator.

While the ruling focused on abuse cases in schools, the decision has far-reaching implications involving anyone required under state law to report abuse, say attorneys involved in the case.

Those implications could range from an increase in lawsuits as victims search out anyone who failed to report abuse by an alleged perpetrator, to holding people responsible for abuse suffered by children they may never have known or talked to.

"The public policy behind the decision is admirable," attorney Lynnette Ballato said. "However, the law typically does not hold third parties liable for injuries to individuals with whom they have not had direct contact."

Ballato's firm represented the Ohio Association of Civil Trial Attorneys in urging the court to rule in favor of school districts. The association consists of lawyers who defend civil lawsuits.

The court's 5-2 decision came in the case of a Mansfield couple who sued after their 15-year-old daughter was sexually abused by a high school teacher and coach in February 2000. The coach was fired and convicted of sexual battery, according to Wednesday's court ruling.

The couple said Mansfield city schools was negligent because it had failed to report an alleged abuse case involving the same teacher three years earlier.

The district never reported that abuse, believing the girl was lying, records show.

The district argued that the more recent abuse case did not meet an exception under state law for when public entities can be sued. The 5th Ohio District Court of Appeals agreed, saying the district could have been sued only in the first case and would have been immune to lawsuits by subsequent victims of the same perpetrator.

Wednesday's ruling says the law was never meant to cover only one case of abuse and not to apply to other abuse by the same person.

The ruling upheld the obligation to report child abuse, said Robert Vecchio, a lawyer representing the girl and her parents.

The law "was designed not only to protect the one child, but to protect anybody else who may be the victim of that same abuser," he said.

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