CAPE ELIZABETH — Timothy Bell was 13 years old when he was struck by a car in North Berwick in 2009 after getting someone to lie to his mother that he was staying over at a friend’s house.
Students at Cape Elizabeth High School looked on as the seven justices on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Wednesday heard a lawyer for Bell’s mother argue in an appeal that there should be a trial to decide whether the woman who called Bell’s mother, Rose Dawson, and her husband, Randall, should be held responsible for Timothy Bell’s safety that day in 2009 when he was struck by the car in front of the Dawsons’ house.
The state’s highest court brought the judicial system into high schools across the state this week, turning auditoriums into courtrooms in Orono High School on Monday, Nokomis Regional High School on Tuesday and then finally Cape Elizabeth High School on Wednesday.
Students got a firsthand look as the panel of justices heard real cases with real-life impacts, just as if the cases were heard in an actual courtroom.
Students in Cape Elizabeth’s honors government class had studied three cases, including the case of Teresa Bell versus the Dawsons, in advance of the Supreme Judicial Court’s appearance at their school.
The Dawsons opened their home the night before the crash to Bell and a group of teenagers, allowing them to smoke cigarettes while the Dawsons were there drinking numerous alcoholic drinks, a lawyer for Bell’s parents, Sheldon Tepler, said. The Dawsons’ children are adults and were not in the house that night.
“Not only did the defendants (the Dawsons) take control of a 13-year-old boy, but they did so deceptively and surreptitiously,” Tepler said.
Tepler was arguing an appeal, asking the high court to overturn a York County Superior Court judge’s earlier decision in favor of the Dawsons, denying a jury trial on a lawsuit filed against them by Teresa Bell.
The woman who was driving the car that struck Bell as he skateboarded out of the Dawsons’ driveway onto Madison Street in North Berwick had already reached a court insurance settlement with Teresa Bell. Teresa Bell was pursuing the appeal in the case against the Dawsons as her last avenue available to her in Maine’s courts.
Wednesday’s hearing was for the attorneys to make oral arguments on the appeal, with the seven justices free to pepper the lawyers with questions in a lively session.
The Dawsons’ attorney, Jonathan Brogan, argued that while the Dawsons’ behavior was “less than exemplary,” they were not responsible for Bell’s well-being because he had left their property to return to his own home in the morning. He skateboarded back to the Dawsons’ house without their knowledge.
“Teenagers can be difficult, and in this case Mrs. Bell had some supervisory issues herself,” Brogan said.
The justices began questioning Brogan after he argued that since Bell stayed out all night and then went home, telling his mother that he was going skateboarding with friends, that legal parental custody had shifted back to her from the Dawsons.
“The Dawsons basically run a house where they let kids come and party,” said Justice Donald Alexander, asking Brogan whether he would agree that the Dawsons were “totally irresponsible.”
The court made no immediate ruling on the case or two others that followed later in the morning, but allowed students to ask the lawyers questions.
A lunch for the justices with the students was planned in the afternoon.
“I like how the judges’ questions were very direct, and how they (the attorneys) had to react on their feet,” said Addison Wood, a 17-year-old senior, adding that the judges “definitely had personalities.”
Two other seniors, 17-year-old Tim Hartel and 18-year-old Brian Nestor, debated after the hearing about which side had a stronger case.
“I think it was a really appropriate case,” Nestor said. “It’s easy to understand the situation. It is something that we can see happening.”
Molly Thibodeau, a 17-year-old senior, said she could see both sides of the argument and didn’t know which way the justices would go in their decision.
“I had never seen the setting where it is one-on-one with the judges and lawyers,” Thibodeau said. “It’s really interesting to see the reality of it instead of on TV.”
Scott Dolan can be reached at 791-6304 or at:firstname.lastname@example.org