WEST PALM BEACH -- Minutes after a jury late Wednesday awarded a mentally challenged Pahokee girl $1.7 million for the trauma she suffered when she was raped on a Palm Beach County school bus when she was 3, the girl’s mother rushed toward those who had given her daughter a second chance.
“Wait,” she called out just before they filed out the door. “I want to thank all of you.”
In turn, she hugged each of the four women and two men who rejected the school board’s claims that her daughter wasn’t hurt by the 2007 attack. School board attorneys argued the girl was too young and too mentally disabled to understand what a 15-year-old emotionally disturbed youth did to her on the bus filled with special needs kids.
With tears streaming down her face, the mother looked at the girl’s father. Both heaved sighs of relief.
“It means a lot to me,” she said of the verdict. “My daughter finally got justice.”
The School Board never denied the girl was molested. Both the bus driver and the aide who was on the bus to protect the students were fired. The aide, Grenisha Williams, was convicted of child neglect in connection with the incident and put on probation. Sexual battery charges were filed against J.C. Carter, the youth school police said assaulted the child. The School Board even changed policies, decreeing that young children should no longer be allowed to ride buses with older kids.
But, the district never agreed to compensate the now 9-year-old girl for the trauma that her attorneys argued exacerbated her considerable learning problems.
“I think the jury got it,” attorney Stephan Le Clainche said.
Despite School Board attorneys’ claims to the contrary, he said: “The jury realized that any child of a tender age who is the victim of physical or sexual violence is going to carry the stain of it their entire life.”
But, he acknowledged, the battle is far from over. Under Florida law, government agencies in 2007 could only be forced to pay $100,000 for injuries caused by their wrongdoing. (The cap on so-called sovereign immunity, that comes from the English concept that the King can do no wrong, has since been raised to $200,000.) But to get more than $100,000, the girl’s attorneys must now persuade a typically stubborn Florida Legislature to life the cap so the girl can get the $1.7 million the jury said she deserves.
“We have a long road to go,” Le Clainche said. The $100,000 will barely cover the court costs that included paying $25,000 to a psychiatrist who persuaded the jury that the girl carries deep psychological scars that will take years of counseling and private schooling to salve.
The mother said she was well aware of the looming battle. “I’ve been waiting all this time. I guess I can wait some more,” said the mother, who lost her job as a cook when the always shaky economy in the Glades got even worse in the recent recession.
Jurors declined comment on the verdict, as did attorneys representing the school board. Attorney Scott Krevens said they don’t comment on pending litigation.
But the two sides argued their cases vigorously Wednesday in their last appearances before the jury after a five-day trial.
Attorney Tom McCausland, one of the school board’s two attorneys, suggested that the jury give the girl $250,000 for the pain she endured on the day of the attack and $31,000 for family counseling.
“A quarter-million dollars is a way of saying we’re sorry it happened,” he said.
Le Clainche bristled at McCausland’s suggestion that the money was an apology and not a recognition that the girl needs years of therapy.
McCausland insisted the girl has no memory of the attack. “Her brain has not been able to form to grasp the event,” McCausland told jurors. “This very, very heinous act, fortunately, is not something the girl remembers.”
Le Clainche translated McCausland’s argument this way: “Your harm is worth nothing because you’re already damaged.” Then, he added, “That is an incredible, outrageous defense.”
The psychiatrist hired by the girl’s team testified that the attack stymied the girl’s emotional and intellectual growth. A psychologist hired by the school board told jurors trauma doesn’t affect cognitive development.
In the end, it was clear the jury accepted the long-standing child-rearing concept that early childhood development impacts a youngster’s entire life.
About two hours into their deliberations, the jurors sent out a question: “Can the possibility of future sexual problems be considered as future pain and suffering?”
Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley said they could.
Less than 15 minutes later, they announced their verdict.