A California appellate court has upheld a $4-plus million judgment against Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., the top organizational body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in a case brought by a woman who alleges she was molested as a child by a church elder in 2006.
The ruling from the Fourth District Court of Appeal leaves in place terminating sanctions and a $4,016,152.39 judgment after Watchtower refused to hand over a trove of documents it received in response to a 1997 letter sent to Jehovah’s Witness congregations concerning known molesters in the church.
The underlying case was brought on behalf of J.W., who was molested by Gilbert Simental, with whom she and her family attended the Mountain View Jehovah’s Witness congregation. J.W. contends that her family wouldn’t have allowed her to attend a slumber party at Simental’s house but for his service as an elder in the church, the highest authority at the congregational level of the organization. Simental was found guilty in two criminal cases of molesting J.W. and two other anonymous victims.
J.W.’s lawyers at The Zalkin Law Firm and Pine Freeman Tillett had argued before the trial court the responses to the 1997 letter were relevant to her case because they could establish the church’s duty to protect children like her and to investigate Simental. They argued that the documents were needed for her negligence-based causes of action, and they were relevant to her punitive damages claim.
In turn, the Watchtower’s lawyers at Clark Hill in Los Angeles initially had argued that the documents were protected by clergy-penitent privilege. After that privilege argument was turned back, they claimed that terminating sanctions were too extreme a remedy because the documents only applied to the punitive damages portion of the case.
But the trial court sided with J.W. and awarded her $3 million for pain and suffering; $1 million for future medical expenses; and $16,152.39 for costs.
On appeal, Watchtower’s lawyers argued that J.W. hadn’t alleged that there was a lack of proximate cause between its actions and her injury, particularly since she was molested outside of church grounds and at an event that wasn’t church-sanctioned. But the Fourth District on Monday found that in a negligent hiring or retention case the focus should be on Watchtower’s actions and the risk of molestation that it “allegedly knowingly created.”
“J.W. sufficiently alleged that Watchtower was responsible for Simental being in a position of authority within the church by alleging that Watchtower is the ultimate authority in the Jehovah’s Witness Church,” wrote Justice Douglas Miller in a 44-page opinion.
Miller wrote that Watchtower’s warnings that the case would “open the litigation floodgates” was misplaced since proximate cause would be decided “on a case-by-case basis.”
Watchtower’s lawyer, Richard Nakamura of Clark Hill, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
J.W.’s attorney, Devin Storey of the Zalkin Law Firm, said that it was important the court found proximate cause “as long as there’s some kind of nexus to the defendant and to the defendant’s business.”
Storey noted that he and his firm have litigated over the 1997 documents in two prior cases that have gone to the Court of Appeal and that highly redacted copies of some of the material have been handed over in a fourth case currently pending in Orange County.
“We litigate cases of sexual abuse all day, every day,” he said of his firm. “I’ve never had a defendant other than Watchtower tell a court point blank, ‘I won’t comply.’”
“Affirmatively understanding the order and saying ‘I’m not going to do it.’ … That’s not something I ever see.”