Southern California jury delivers $135M verdict in molestation case involving middle school teacher

Oct 11, 2023, 12:31 PM

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A jury has delivered a $135 million verdict in a molestation case involving a middle school teacher, determining that negligence by a Southern California school district allowed the abuse of two students during the 1990s.

Jurors in Riverside County Superior Court decided Tuesday that the Moreno Valley Unified School District is 90% responsible for the damages, while former teacher Thomas Lee West is 10% responsible, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers. The ruling means the district will pay $121.5 million.

“The verdict that was reached is unprecedented, and the district is weighing its options moving forward,” the school district said in a statement Wednesday. It’s estimated that insurance will only cover about 11% of the district’s portion of damages, the statement said.

During a criminal trial, West was convicted of committing lewd or lascivious acts with minors. He is currently serving a 52 years-to-life sentence in Mule Creek State Prison.

The two former students said in their civil lawsuit that they were repeatedly abused by West during 1996 and 1997 when they were sixth graders at Vista Heights Middle School east of Los Angeles. The lawsuit said district officials should have known that West posed a threat to students.

As a result of the abuse, the victims have suffered “life-long mental and emotional distress,” their lawyers said in a statement.

“The psychological effects of the severe and pervasive abuse have left both men shells of who they would have been but for the abuse made possible by the District,” the statement said.

The district said it has implemented many changes since the incidents occurred and it continues to monitor and update industry best practices.

“Although it happened under a previous administration over 27 years ago, the district understands the lifelong impact of these traumatic experiences. The district knows that it can never undo the past, the hurt and anguish suffered by these individuals,” the district statement said. “We truly hope they continue to recover from these incidents.”

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Southern California jury delivers $135M verdict in molestation case involving middle school teacher