Court sides with former students, grants early appeal
A former West Linn High School student — whose negligence claims in a $6 million lawsuit, filed with a second former student, against the West Linn-Wilsonville School District were dismissed in September — was granted the right to appeal the dismissal in a hearing Nov. 6.
Though the younger plaintiff was represented during the hearing, his case may impact the second plaintiff's case as both sued the district for the same claims.
The lawsuit argued that the district was negligent and failed to provide protection against sexual abuse by former WLHS teacher Jonathan Peachey in 2015.
The suit, filed in the Clackamas County Circuit Court, alleged that Peachey touched a then-17-year-old boy and a then-14-year-old boy in a sexual manner on multiple occasions at a private home in Lake Oswego.
Peachey was sentenced to 36 months of probation and a suspended sentence of 60 days in jail by Lake Oswego Municipal Court in 2016 after pleading guilty to sexual abuse charges.
As part of his sentence, Peachey was also ordered to register as a sex offender and pay restitution to his victims for counseling. He was not to have any contact with the victims or their families, and can no longer have any contact with minors, except in supervised settings with family members. His teaching license was also later revoked.
Further, the suit claimed that the school district failed to investigate rumors that Peachey had inappropriate relationships with students, failed to report suspected child abuse by Peachey and continued employing Peachey after allegations against him, among other claims. The district said it had no knowledge of the alleged rumors, and immediately reported the plaintiff's allegations to the police when the district became aware of them.
In September, the judge granted the district's motion to dismiss the negligence claims, agreeing with the district that the plaintiffs were not able to prove that the district had any prior knowledge of Peachey's behavior. The plaintiffs believed that order was wrong and wanted to appeal it.
But under court proceedings, a party cannot appeal decisions until a final judgment is made.
During the Nov. 6 court hearing, the judge granted the plaintiff's motion for limited judgment, which will allow them to appeal the dismissal of the negligence claims at the court of appeals before going to trial on the remaining "vicarious liability" claims, where an employer can be liable for negligent acts of its employee if it can be shown the act took place under the scope of employment.
The vicarious liability claim — which focused on the teacher's conduct in forming a relationship with and then abusing the plaintiffs — said the district had the capability of controlling the employee's action to a degree, and failed to do so.
Stephen Crew, the younger plaintiff's attorney, said that this case is unique in that there are two plaintiffs. The second plaintiff will encounter the same problems with the negligence claims and will be confronted with the issue of going to trial only on vicarious liability claims. Crew said he wants to see if they can get a ruling from the court of appeals that would allow both the plaintiffs to go to trial on both of their claims instead of going to the court of appeals following the trial, which would result in two costly and lengthy trials.
"I know all the cases that come before you are important and all the cases that come before you are difficult, but a childhood sexual abuse case is particularly difficult and is particularly difficult on the plaintiff," said Crew during the Nov. 6 hearing.
"Every time they retell their story it's like reliving it; it's being re-traumatized and that's particularly true in this case where you have a 17-year-old boy who was abused when he was 14 years old. ... We don't want two trials on this case, we want one trial. We'd like to present one trial .... same jury, same time. I think that's in the best interest of judicial efficiency."
The school district would rather go to trial on the remaining vicarious liability claims first and then have the plaintiffs head to the court of appeals following the trial.
"When you reduce the plaintiffs' argument to their core, the fact is that any time there has been judicative prior rulings on claims in a case like this, there's always the risk of two trials," Peter Mersereau, the defendant's attorney, said.
Since limited judgment was granted to the plaintiff at the Tuesday hearing, it will allow the student to appeal the negligence claims and then head to trial. It was not immediately clear if the other student was also granted the right to appeal the negligence claims.
The judge said he doubts the case would head to trial before next summer or fall, so with the significant delay, Crew argued that the plaintiffs should see what the court of appeals rules during that time.
"In light of the nature of the allegations and the emotional trauma that the plaintiffs would have to go through and the length of the trial, I think it makes sense to take it up at this point, and the fact that there are two different plaintiffs," said Judge Officer Thomas Restetter.