Saturday, May 18, 2013
Los Angeles Times
Ron Morgan and Kerry Lewis grew up in adjoining states -- one in Idaho, the other in Oregon.
Kerry Lewis, left, who was abused as a Boy Scout, won nearly $20 million in a lawsuit against the Boy Scouts in Portland, Ore., in 2010. Former scouts suing the organization in other states may not be as successful because of differences in their legal systems. With Lewis is his attorney, Paul Mones.
File photo/The Associated Press
Both belonged to Boy Scout troops during the 1980s, and decades later, both alleged in lawsuits that the Scouts failed to protect them and other boys against known molesters, citing detailed evidence from the organization's confidential files.
In 2010, Lewis won a jury verdict of nearly $20 million against the Scouts, the largest such award in the organization's history.
Morgan's case was never considered on its merits. The Idaho Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that, under state law, it was filed too late.
"Our state turned us away," Morgan said. "His didn't."
With the release last week of more than 1,200 confidential files on suspected sexual abuse from past decades, the Boy Scouts of America faces the prospect of a new wave of lawsuits and potentially costly damages. But as in past child sex abuse cases, alleged victims' ability to get their cases before a jury will vary dramatically by state.
Many states have strict statutes of limitation on such allegations, and experts say the likelihood of even finding a lawyer to take decades-old cases can be difficult.
Multimillion-dollar verdicts are possible in states such as Oregon and Washington with loose time limits -- especially if juries find the Scouts acted recklessly and award punitive damages.
But recourse for alleged victims could prove far more elusive in states like Alabama and New York, unless their tight time limits are changed or set aside.
"Geography determines justice. That's the problem," said Paul Mones, the Oregon-based attorney who represented Lewis.
Defense attorneys argue that statutes of limitation exist for a reason: It's hard to mount a defense against old accusations, particularly for institutions that may have severed ties with the alleged abuser decades ago. Key witnesses are often infirm or dead, documents have disappeared and time has eroded memories, said Don Steier, who represents priests accused of abuse in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
A number of states have embraced what are called "discovery rules," allowing alleged victims, regardless of their age, to sue once they learn of links between past abuse and present psychological problems.
Oregon has had a discovery rule for years, and without it, the Lewis case might have gone nowhere. Lewis alleged that in 1983, troop leader Timur Dykes confessed to a Scouting official that he had abused 17 boys. Nevertheless, he continued to participate in Scouting activities. Boys worked on their merit badge requirements at his apartment and sometimes slept over.
Attempts to permanently loosen statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse stalled this year in New Jersey and New York. In California, Assemblyman James Beall Jr., a Democrat, said the Catholic Church helped quash his bill to raise the age limit of suits to 35. "We weren't able to get it through the political process," Beall said.
In 2007, Idaho also adopted a discovery rule like Oregon's. Morgan's lawsuit was the first to test it.
According to Morgan's lawsuit, two boys had complained to Scouting officials in 1979 that troop leader James P. Schmidt made them sleep in his tent. "He told us that there was a wolverine outside to scare us so we would get closer to him," one boy wrote in a letter contained in Schmidt's confidential file. "All night he tried to put his hand down my pants."
The Scouts said in court papers that an official confronted Schmidt, who said he had faced other accusations of this sort "but that he was innocent of all of them."
Officials said they had notified police and the troop's sponsor, the local Mormon church, whose leaders promised to keep an eye on Schmidt.
Just before Morgan started eighth grade in 1980, Schmidt was appointed his troop's assistant scoutmaster. One day, Schmidt allegedly drove Morgan to his home, took Morgan into his bedroom and repeatedly grabbed the boy's crotch. Morgan stopped the molestation, he alleged, by kneeing Schmidt in the groin.
Another plaintiff in the same case alleged that in 1982, when he was 9, Schmidt sodomized him and forced him to perform sex acts with his own cousin.
In 1983, Schmidt pleaded guilty to one count of lewd and lascivious conduct with a 10-year-old Scout. The former troop leader is now a registered sex offender in Maryland.
After two years of courtroom wrangling, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled that the new law didn't apply to incidents of abuse that occurred before it was passed. Morgan's case evaporated.
"If I only lived somewhere else," Morgan said.