High Court in New Jersey Upholds Right to Sue School
By LAURA MANSNERUS - The New York Times
August 9, 2006
TRENTON, Aug. 8 The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday
that a man who attended a boarding school in Princeton 35 years
ago may pursue his lawsuit claiming that he was repeatedly abused
sexually by staff members at the school.
The justices said the American Boychoir School could be held liable
for the actions of its employees, including a choirmaster who was
described in the suit as an incorrigible pedophile, under a law
that holds parents, guardians and other caretakers responsible in
instances of sexual abuse committed by others.
The plaintiff, John W. Hardwicke Jr., said he was eager to tell
his story to a jury. For five years, we fought just to get
the right to sue a school that had uncounted numbers of pedophiles,
Mr. Hardwickes lawyer, Keith Smith, said the ruling would
help other sex abuse victims who have filed suits against boarding
Mr. Hardwickes suit described him as a virtual sexual captive
of the schools choirmaster and recounted abuse by the choirmasters
friends and fellow employees.
The choirmaster, Donald Hanson, was dismissed in 1982, a decade
after Mr. Hardwicke left the school, when he was accused of molesting
other students. He later fled the country. He was named in Mr. Hardwickes
suit but did not respond.
Mr. Hardwickes case was dismissed by a Superior Court judge
in Mercer County but reinstated in 2004 by the Appellate Division.
The case brought heightened attention to sexual abuse of children
at a time when the scandals involving pedophile priests in the Roman
Catholic Church were unfolding. After emotional testimony in legislative
hearings from people who were abused as children by clergy and teachers,
New Jersey this year carved out an exception to the rule that charities
and other nonprofit institutions cannot be sued for negligent hiring
The Boychoir School, with an entirely new administration and new
policies to protect students, argued that it was nearly impossible
to put together a defense to events that took place 35 years ago,
and that it could not be held liable for offenses by staff members
that were beyond the scope of their employment.
But the court said the Child Sexual Abuse Act, which provides for
claims years after abuse takes place, applies to institutions as
well as individuals who provide a household for a child.
The headmaster of the Boychoir School, Donald Edwards, could not
be reached for comment Tuesday.
The schools lawyer, Jay Greenblatt, said the decision applied
to many corporate employers and was a sweeping change.
But Mr. Smith said the court carefully limited its decision to
cases of child sexual abuse.
Mr. Hardwicke must still establish whether he brought suit within
the statute of limitations, two years from the time he discovered
his injury. He said that it was only with the help of therapy that
he could trace emotional problems to abuse at the school.