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J&C Wins Supreme Court Appeal of Sexual Abuse Case

On May 21 2015 the Delaware Supreme Court decided that Kimberly Hecksher had a clear right of action against the Fairwinds Baptist Church School for gross negligence in supervision of the school in contributing to the rape of a teenage girl student on its property.

The case was the last of those brought under the landmark 2007 Child Victim’s Act which enabled time-barred claims based on sexual abuse of children to be brought for a period of two years in Delaware, and which eliminated the statute of limitations for civil actions based on such crimes.

The Supreme Court found that if a teacher or a school secretary had knowledge of inappropriate conduct of a teacher with a student, that the knowledge of the teacher or secretary was knowledge of the Church School. The teacher and/or the secretary had a duty to report the information to the school and the proper police authorities of the sexual misconduct.

That was true even if the misconduct and harassment was not an observation of the rape itself but only of the interaction of the teacher or other school employee with students.

Thus looking down a female students dress or making other sexual advances were all reportable and improper actions of the school employee. Thus the School could be found negligent for its employee’s knowledge of abuse and failure to report it.

The Supreme Court also found that the trial level judge should have allowed Ms. Hecksher’s counsel to more fully investigate the School and its employees (including its principal) to show the sexual misconduct atmosphere of the Church School.

The Supreme Court further found that if a school knowingly employs family members it cannot argue that the family member’s motivation was adverse to the school’s when one family member fails to report on the other’s sexual misconduct with a student, saying:

“When an employer knowingly hires spouses, it has a reason to expect that those employees will have conflicted interests. Indeed, this conflict is a justification for anti-nepotism policies at many places of employment. If the employer chooses to hire spouses or family members despite that risk, it has a duty to take steps to ensure that the employees will not put their personal relationships above their duty to the institution and the people that it serves.”

Hecksher v. Fairwinds Baptist Church, Inc., 2015 Del. LEXIS 243, *35 (Del. May 21, 2015).

The Court further held that Fairwinds could be liable for its personnel’s failure to respond to or report red flags which could indicate that Edward Sterling was sexually abusing Kim Hecksher.

“Therefore, a reasonable juror could conclude that Fairwinds’ failure to take any steps to inform its staff of their statutory obligation to report sexual abuse of students and train them on how to detect and prevent such abuse was an extreme departure from the required standard of care.”

Hecksher v. Fairwinds Baptist Church, Inc., 2015 Del. LEXIS 243, *45 (Del. May 21, 2015)

This reversal will allow Jacobs & Crumplar to continue this case and bring justice to Ms. Hecksher. It further signals to private schools in Delaware that they must educate and train their staff on the problem of childhood sexual abuse and the proper reactions should they observe red flags which could indicate a student is being abused.

Even though the window for filing claims under the 2007 Child Victim’s Act has passed, Jacobs & Crumplar continues to file cases on behalf of sexual abuse victims. If you believe you were the victim of sexual abuse, call Jacobs & Crumplar today.