Two men who were sexually abused by a teacher when they were boys in the 1990s won a $135 million judgment against a Southern California school district and their abuser on Tuesday after a jury determined that school officials had failed to protect them from a predator.
The jury in Riverside County Superior Court found that the Moreno Valley Unified School District had endangered children when it hired Thomas Lee West, a child predator with a history of molestation complaints, and retained him as an employee for two decades, lawyers for the plaintiffs said.
The plaintiffs, Brady Blair and Justin McGregor, were both sexually abused by Mr. West when they were students in his classroom at Vista Heights Middle School during the 1996-97, according to the victims’ lawyers.
“That boy that went through all of that trauma still exists within me today,” Mr. McGregor said in an interview. “It’s not something that’s ever gone away, and it’s not something that will ever go away.”
Moreno Valley Unified School District did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Wednesday. The district’s lawyers, who also did not immediately respond to requests for comment, argued at trial that the district was not responsible for the actions of Mr. West.
The school district said in a statement to The Associated Press that it was “weighing its options moving forward.”
The jury determined that the school district would be responsible for 90 percent of the damages and that Mr. West would be responsible for 10 percent.
Brian Panish, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that insurance would cover the portion of damages owed by Moreno Valley Unified School District. He said that its policy can cover up to $200 million. But in its statement to The A.P., the school district said that its insurance would cover only about 11 percent of the roughly $121 million it owes.
In 2003, Mr. Blair reported to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department that he had been abused by Mr. West, prompting the teacher’s arrest. Mr. West was found guilty in 2006 of 10 counts of child molestation and is serving a sentence of 52 years to life in Mule Creek State Prison.
The portion of damages owed by Mr. West, 68, most likely will never be paid because he is in prison, said Spencer Lucas, another lawyer for the victims.
The $135 million verdict most likely reflects how appalled the jurors were by the details of the case and their sympathies for the plaintiffs, said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
Indeed, lawyers for Mr. Blair and Mr. McGregor, now both 38, said they had reiterated to jurors a key point: that the district had ample opportunities to prevent a child molester from hurting more boys.
Mr. Lucas said there was a pattern of neglect from past school officials: In 1988, a boy told the district that Mr. West had molested him; then in 1991, another boy reported the same thing to them.
“The district, instead of reporting it, investigating it, and terminating this predator pedophile, they swept it under the rug, and they protected West,” Mr. Lucas said.
In 1993, Mr. West was arrested after being accused of sexually abusing his informal foster child, according to court records. He was charged with 10 counts of child molestation, but the principal of Vista Heights Middle School allowed Mr. West to continue teaching, court records state.
He eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of child endangerment and was sentenced to 120 days of weekend incarceration, records show. Still, Mr. West was allowed to keep teaching sixth grade on weekdays and then spend the weekends in jail in Bakersfield, Mr. Lucas said.
“I’ve never in my life seen such egregious facts of school district negligence,” he added.
A phrase would often be repeated by former school officials once Mr. West was brought back to work, lawyers said: “We’re just going to go with business as usual.”
That negligence, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said, enabled the sexual abuse of Mr. McGregor and Mr. Blair from 1996 to 2001.
Mr. McGregor said that Mr. West’s molestation included fondling, groping and kissing. Mr. West maintained his control over the boys through threats and coercion, tracking them via computer and scaring them from reporting their abuse, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said.
“There was a lot of fear and shame involved,” Mr. McGregor said of his emotions at the time. “You do your best to bottle things up, you do your best to try to deny those things.”
In 1998, when Mr. West reapplied for his teaching credential, the California Teachers Credentialing Board discovered his child endangerment conviction and revoked his credential. But, according to court records, Moreno Valley Unified School District employees were encouraged to write letters of support for Mr. West to get him credentialed again.
It worked. Soon, lawyers said, Mr. West was back in school, leading overnight field trips, abusing Mr. McGregor and Mr. Blair, driving children in his car, meeting with them behind closed doors and asking them to sit on his lap.
“All these red flags,” Mr. Lucas said, “and they just turned out a blind eye.”
At least four children are known to have been molested by Mr. West, lawyers said, but there may have been more.
Mr. McGregor said that he wanted to be publicly identified because he felt it was necessary “to give other victims of childhood sex abuse the strength to be able to come forward and know that they will be OK — and that the truth can prevail.”