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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,” he said.

Mr. Hardwicke’s lawyer, Keith Smith, said the ruling would help other sex abuse victims who have filed suits against boarding schools.

Mr. Hardwicke’s suit described him as a virtual sexual captive of the school’s choirmaster and recounted abuse by the choirmaster’s 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. Hardwicke’s suit but did not respond.

Mr. Hardwicke’s 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 and supervision.

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 school’s 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.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests