Cache County Jury Returns $12.5 million verdict in child sex abuse case
At the conclusion of a five-day jury trial on Friday night, a Cache County jury returned a total verdict of $12.5 million in favor of a now-11-year-old victim of sex abuse for harm caused in July 2008 in part by two affiliated group-home companies: Northeastern Services, Inc. and Northeastern Services – Lakeside, Inc. (collectively, NES). These two Utah companies, under contract with the Utah Department of Human Services, provide housing and in-home assistance services to mentally and behaviorally disabled adults in communities around Utah. The lawsuit was filed by former Logan, Utah residents Rachel Graves and Dustin Russell on behalf of their daughter, who was barely four years old when she was sexually molested in July 2008 by an NES employee at a home operated by NES in a residential neighborhood in Logan.
There was evidence at trial that NES purposefully located its group home for mentally and behaviorally disabled adults in a residential neighborhood setting and encouraged neighborhood children to regularly interact with the group-home residents. This management and treatment protocol included inviting neighborhood children to the group-home premises to play in an outdoor wading pool and watch TV inside with the adult residents – without first informing the children’s parents. According to evidence presented at trial, the home was not a safe place for children to be. The jury was told that NES management instructed its employees not to tell neighbors in residential neighborhoods about safety issues, or the dangers to children that may exist in the homes, while simultaneously encouraging interaction with the neighborhood children, and inviting or allowing the children to come into the home.
The child victim’s attorney, Shaun L Peck, told the jury that NES should not have allowed – much less encouraged – young children to enter its group home facilities without parental permission.
The victim was molested by a male NES employee inside the bathroom of the NES operated home. The jury was told that NES failed to perform screening of its employee that would have revealed that he had been recently fired from a similar position with a another operator for abusing a disabled resident where he worked. Nor did NES require the employee, a user of methamphetamine and marijuana, to ever submit to a pre-employment or post-employment drug test. Finally, the jury was told that NES provided no training or meaningful supervision to Cooper during his two-month employment with the company.
The jury heard evidence that on July 17, 2008, the victim was playing with her older sister and other children in the common area between her own home and the NES home when she was given candy and invited into the NES home to watch a movie. After the child was in the home, the NES supervisor responsible for managing the home watched while the male employee took the four-year-old child victim to the bathroom. The jury heard that the abuse occurred in the bathroom after the NES manager failed to intervene. NES’s contract with the State of Utah specifically requires NES to perform reference checks of its employees, to train and supervise its employees, and to maintain a drug-free workplace.
The male employee, Matthew Cooper, was arrested later that night by Logan City police and prosecuted by the Cache County Attorney’s Office. Cooper later pled guilty to aggravated sexual abuse of a child and was sentenced to the Utah State Prison, where he remains incarcerated.
This lawsuit was originally set for trial in December 2012. But a few days before the beginning of the scheduled trial, NES appealed certain legal rulings by District Judge Thomas L. Willmore and was granted a last-minute postponement of the trial by the Utah Court of Appeals. On January 30, 2015, the Utah Supreme Court issued its decision in Graves v. Northeastern Services, Inc., holding that NES “owed a duty to [the child victim] to exercise reasonable care in the hiring, training, and supervision of their employees”, and to prevent Cooper from molesting the child under the circumstances present in the case. The Supreme Court also determined that the child victim did not need an expert witness at trial to explain NES’s duty to the jury and that the jury must consider apportioning fault to Matthew Cooper as well as NES. In its verdict, the jury found NES liable for 12% of the harm to the minor child, with Cooper liable for 85% of the harm. The remaining 3% of the fault was allocated to the father of the child.
NES is based in Orem, Utah and is a closely held corporation owned by members of the Crabb family. Cory Crabb, who testified at trial on behalf of NES, is the Company’s President and CEO. According to its website, NES operates facilities in 8 Utah cities, including Salt Lake City, Orem, Logan, Layton, Lehi, Vernal, Roosevelt and Price.
The child victim was represented before the Utah Supreme Court and at trial by Shaun L Peck and Shawn P. Bailey of the Logan law firm of Peck Hadfield Baxter & Moore, LLC, Rand Henderson, and Finlay Boag. After the jury returned its final verdict Monday afternoon, Mr. Peck stated, “I hope this verdict sends the message to NES and all other group-home operators in Utah that they cannot put corporate profits above community responsibility. They cannot just locate a group-home facility in a family neighborhood, staff the group home with unfit employees, and fail to adequately supervise the operation of the group home. They must be responsible corporate citizens, especially when they are funded by State dollars.”
The child victim’s parents issued the following statement: On behalf of our daughter we want to thank the jury for holding NES accountable for its negligence in hiring, and failing to train and supervise its employees. We feel that NES held a position of trust in our community that was violated through its loose practices. We hope this verdict will not only help our daughter meet her challenges, but that it will also send a message to all such organizations that they must act reasonably to protect our neighborhoods and our children. Our hope is that our daughter will someday know that things changed because a courageous jury was willing to stand up and say “enough” is “enough” through a court system that enabled “justice to be done.” We believe that this will be significant to her as she works to overcome the problems associated with this abuse.” We very much appreciate the court and the court staff, the attorneys and everyone who made this possible.