The hardest personal injury cases for plaintiffs’ lawyers to prove are those without any physical or objective evidence of damage. Traumatic brain injuries are invisible enough, but the psychological injuries from childhood sexual abuse are even more elusive.
It is perhaps the greatest test of a trial lawyer’s abilities – and a plaintiff’s credibility – when the measure of damages is a story the jury is free to believe or disbelieve.
That was the challenge faced by the 17 lawyers who represent plaintiffs suing St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center over its alleged failure to oversee a doctor accused of sexually abusing children during “growth” studies. The plaintiffs’ steering committee picked Richard Kenny, of Kenny, O’Keefe & Usseglio, to be the spokesman for a complex case involving anonymous plaintiffs with invisible injuries.
“It’s not a lot easier than herding squirrels,” said Plainville lawyer Kenneth Laska, who represents four of the plaintiffs.
Kenny, a seasoned trial lawyer with decades of litigation management experience, has the voice of a broadcaster and the looks of a network anchor. When explaining the twists and turns of the case to TV or newspaper interviewers, he spoke up clearly about the issues he could address.
His team consisted of some of the state’s most experienced trial lawyers, and others who were not. They placed a wide range of settlement values on their clients’ cases, and Kenny had to work hard to present a united front to the court and the four-man Day Pitney defense team.
“A lot of these guys are very capable individuals, and all have good ideas,” Kenny said. “My job is not to jam it down their throat. It’s to try and coordinate what we’re supposed to do. I think that makes for a smoother handling of all the files, because it would be sheer chaos if we didn’t do it.”
“He’s done a great job as liaison counsel for the plaintiff’s steering committee,” said Michael Jainchill, of Hartford’s RisCassi & Davis, on the plaintiff’s team. “His staff has done a great job, too. They’ve accumulated all the documents and mountains of evidence, and organized it in a fashion that helps everybody. And he’s done a fantastic job of communication with the court and with defense counsel for the group.”
Dearth of Verdicts
Despite two decades of child sexual abuse scandals in churches, schools and other settings, very few cases had gone to a jury verdict anywhere in the country. What Connecticut jurors would conclude about the St. Francis case was, until recently, an open question. In the first trial, New Haven’s Michael Stratton presented a vigorous three week case for his client, only to settle for an undisclosed amount as the jury began its deliberations.
The second case, tried by Douglas P. Mahoney of Bridgeport’s Tremont & Sheldon, resulted in a stunning $2.7 million verdict, setting an important benchmark. Mahoney modestly said the credit should go to his client, who had the courage to come forward and subject his personal life, “and any little thing he might have done wrong in his life,” to vigorous cross examination.
In an entirely separate case, Kenny won a $1.2 million settlement against the stepfather of a young woman who alleged she was abused for years as a child. Kenny took the unusual step of securing a pre-judgment remedy lien against the man’s $2 million unmortgaged residence, which has been ordered sold to satisfy the court judgment.
Under an unwritten rule, Connecticut’s trial lawyers don’t attack the personal assets of doctors, and only pursue medical malpractice cases covered by insurance. “Child molesters don’t get that consideration,” Mahoney commented.
Both cases represented significant strides toward nailing down the value of child sex abuse damages. Kenny is currently preparing for the trial of one of his own St. Francis plaintiffs, John Doe No. 9, which starts jury selection April 15.
On a lighter note, plaintiff’s lawyer Laska, of Siegel & Laska, says Kenny’s TV news appearances, on behalf of the plaintiffs, have imparted a lesson. “If you’re a lawyer in a press conference, speak up and let people know it.”
Kenny sometimes made appearances with other lawyers. One deflected questions by saying any answer would breach client confidentiality. Those responses never made it to TV.
But, Laska recalls, another even more unfortunate lawyer in the group remained totally silent. Kenny eloquently explained how the Reardon victims’ lives had been devastated by the abuse. “The cameraman zoomed in on the lawyer who wasn’t speaking, assuming he was one of the victims. The lawyer blinked, and looked uncomfortable, but didn’t say anything.” said Laska.
“The lesson I drew from that,” he chuckled, “was that when you’re put in a situation like that, just say something, anything. Let everyone know that you’re the lawyer!”