A Reputation Restored?
Something like hope twinkled in my client's eyes on Friday afternoon. A jury returned a verdict in his favor, awarding damages, including punitive dameges, against a woman who had accused him of sexual misconduct with her young daughter. The jury also awarded damages to a young girl who was alleged to have let a game of doctor go too far. Did my client, a man, get his reputation back?
It was a painful trial. In 2008, a girl who had just turned four showed an interest in another child's rear end. The girl's mother quizzed her, repeatedly, about this child's play. The girl eventually described a game of doctor. She accused a nine-year-old of putting her finger in her bottom. The mother was outraged, and called the Department of Children and Families. An investigation was opened, and the case was eventually closed. The children were playing; all adults showed appropriate concern.
But the mother didn't let it rest. Several months later, a new story emerged. Now my client, a man in his 30s, was alleged to have been playing doctor as well, although he tried to use his penis in the game. The mother claimed her daughter told her that he tried to place his penis in her mouth and in her bottom. The mother said her daughter told her the man threatened her and the other children involved. Once again, DCF was called. Once again, the case was closed.
Records from the child protection agency revealed concerns that the child's mother had spent too much time coaxing, and perhaps coaching, the child on what to say. The child appeared to answer questions by rote. The mother seemed more concerned to have folks believe her daughter had been abused than hoping that none of this had ever occurred. There was no physical evidence to support the claims. None of the other children allegedly present when this took place corroborated the story. Even the woman's daughter recanted and changed course from time to time. The mother went to family, friends and acquaintances to discuss what to do about the abuse she claimed her daughter suffered.
No criminal charges were ever filed, although the police investigated and met with prosecutors. The Department of Children and Families found the claims unsubstantiated. My client, a successful businessman from a prominent family in a small shoreline town in Southern Connecticut, was devasted. He is ashamed now to leave his home. The look on his neighbors' faces tells him they know he has been accused of being a child molester.
He filed suit against the mother of the child. Friday, the jury found that this mother, a housewife, had defamed him and had engaged in outrageous conduct, awarding him $105,000 in compensatory damages. His neice, also accused of misconduct, was found to be victim of outrageous conduct: the jury awarded her $5,000 in compensatory damages. The jury also awarded mulitple counts of punitive damages, intended to punish and deter the mother of the child. Under Connecticut law, each award entitles the plaintiffs to attorney's fees: this sum could be as high as another $200,000.
Will this verdict restore my client's reputation? Probably not. We told the jury to give us nothing if they could but undo the harm of the whispering campaign designed and intended to destroy his reputation. The award of monetary damages was a substitute for the justice we really sought.
But I am relieved that this man can now hold his head high in his community. A jury has concluded that a young mother sought to destroy him by uttering false statements and engaging in intolerable conduct. It is as powerful a statement as a community can make in a case of this sort.
While I count this case a win, I am sobered by just how easily it could have turned into a disaster. Child sex abuse claims are often brought with nothing more than the suspect say-so of a very young child. Juries are inclinded often to believe these kids, especially when their testimony is buttressed by the expert opinions of those prepared to explain away every inconsistency. My client could easily have convicted in a criminal court had the state brought charges and sentenced to many years imprisonment. Instead, he is now vindicated: the line separating vindication from disaster is too close for comfort.