When the news hit that a defense team for the LAUSD had argued in S.M. v L.A.U.S.D. that a 14-year-old student who was targeted by a teacher for a sexual relationship was partially responsible for the abuse, many people were understandably upset. When the case was dismissed based on the validity of this argument, the upset turned to outrage.
Fast forward one appeal and a few months, and the California Court of Appeals has ruled that “there is no case or statutory authority or persuasive reasoning supporting the notion that students sexually victimized by their teachers can be contributorily responsible for the harm they suffer.” -240 Cal.App.4th 543
How does this ruling affect future sexual abuse lawsuits?
In short, this is good news for future sexual abuse lawsuits.
Hidden behind the issue of consent was an even more important issue: what level of liability does an institution incur when the abuse occurs for the first time?
For abuse survivors who file lawsuits against the institutions that enable abuse, this ruling removes the ability for an institution to claim consent by a child and, more importantly, reduces the ability for the institution to claim innocence in the case of first-time abuse. Especially if there have been warning signs that, if acted on, could have helped prevent the abuse. For example, if inappropriate behavior is reported and action is taken, the abuse could be prevented.
Specifically, in S.M. v. L.A.U.S.D., the teacher had exhibited several “red flags” such as rearranging the furniture in his classroom to create a space not easily visible, hugging female students, and acting unprofessionally with female students by discussing his private life with them.
Attorney Roger Booth explores this ruling in greater detail in his article “Defining the Standards for Institutional Liability in Sexual Abuse Cases.”