Friday, September 8
Roberson lawsuit heading back to trial:
OLYMPIA (AP) -- The state Supreme Court, in a precedent-setting decision on the Wenatchee child sex-abuse cases, has decided that law-enforcement agencies can be held financially liable for conducting negligent child abuse investigations.
The high court, without comment, on Thursday unanimously upheld a state Court of Appeals ruling in February that reinstated a civil lawsuit brought by Pastor Robert "Roby" Roberson and several others who had been accused of child sex abuse.
An attorney for the Roberson group said he will immediately seek a new trial.
Some expect the ruling to lead to more lawsuits and claims against the city, the lead agency during the 1994-95 child sex-abuse investigations.
"We won," Roberson said. "Wenatchee and Douglas County, hammered again."
"It's a tough decision for police officers," said Pat McMahon, who defended the city in the original civil trial.
Defendants in the reinstated claim include the city, its former police detective Robert Perez and Police Chief Ken Badgley; and Douglas County's Sheriff Dan LaRoche and detectives Robbin Wagg and Dave Helvey.
In February, the state Court of Appeals in Seattle declared that law enforcement agencies can be sued for conducting faulty child-abuse investigations.
The judges decided that a Superior Court judge erred before a 1998 civil trial when he dismissed a negligent-investigation claim brought by Roberson and others against the city of Wenatchee and Douglas County. The appeals court found the Legislature imposed a duty on police and social workers to protect children and their parents and to not harm the parent-child relationship with faulty investigations.
"Such a standard will encourage careful, thorough investigations," the appeals court said in February. The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's ruling.
Lawyers in the case have said the appellate court's ruling breaks new ground because it allows parents and children to sue law-enforcement agencies for conducting wrongful child-abuse investigations. Police have long been immune from such actions.
"I'm very gratified. This now stands as the law of the state," said Robert Van Siclen, an Auburn attorney who represents Roberson and the others.
Van Siclen said he will ask the civil trial judge, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Donohue, for a new trial of the case.
The government agencies and their insurance carriers have declined to settle the suit. "They just ignored me," he said. "If they want to talk, they can come to me. I've given up."
McMahon said no decision has been made whether to pursue a settlement or an appeal. He said he hasn't heard from Van Siclen since the Supreme Court's decision. McMahon predicted if the case goes to trial the plaintiffs will introduce the same evidence they did during the trial in Seattle in 1998. A King County jury rejected claims of civil-rights violations.
Stan Bastian, who defended Douglas County, could not be reached for comment.
Whatcom County Sheriff Dale Brandland, president of the Washington Sheriff's Association, said he was disappointed and called the decision "way off base."
Budget cuts make police work tough enough, he said, without the added burden of being held financially responsible in these cases.
But Van Siclen said all investigators have to do is follow common sense and their own departmental policies, and they won't be liable for a negligent investigation.
"It's just simple rules," he said. "You don't intimidate the kid. You don't push the kid. You don't come in with a preconceived idea."
In June, the Supreme Court ruled in an unrelated case that state Child Protective Services can be held liable for mishandling a child sex-abuse investigation.
The Roberson lawsuit stems from several highly publicized cases during the now largely discredited child sex-abuse investigations. Roberson, his wife, Connie, Sunday school teacher Honnah Sims, and parishioner Donna Rodriguez were accused of participating in an adult-child sex ring operating out of Roberson's Pentecostal church.
The Robersons and Sims were acquitted in 1995 trials. Charges against Rodriguez were dropped.
They -- along with Sims' husband, Jon, and their children -- sued in 1996, contending their civil rights had been violated . They contended authorities encouraged children to make accusations against them. Two of their chief accusers were foster daughters of Perez.
The 1994-95 investigations resulted in the arrests of 43 people and 26 felony convictions. However, 11 people have had their convictions overturned and another six defendants have been released from prison early after agreeing to plead guilty to lesser or unrelated charges. In addition, numerous lawsuits are pending over the way the investigations were handled.
-- World staff writer Stephen Maher contributed to this report.