Legal Trends Newsletter – May 2012

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Legal Trends Spotlights Claim Against the Archdiocese of Omaha and Local Developments.

In this issue of Legal Trends, we report that a client of The Hollander Law Offices, who suffered from childhood sexual abuse, caused the Archdiocese of Omaha to remove a priest from ministry. We also discuss developments in a recent civil rights suit in Chicago and jury trial trends in Cook County and federal court.

Tort Law

40 Year Old Sexual Abuse Claim Causes the Archdiocese of Omaha To Remove Priest From Ministry.

On Sunday, April 29, 2012, parishioners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Omaha were in for quite a surprise during the morning Mass. Archbishop George Lucas of the Archdiocese of Omaha, delivered a letter to those attending services, that their pastor, Father Frank Dvorak, had been removed from ministry. Dvorak, 68 years old, had been a pastor at the church since June, 2007.

Hollander’s client, who shall be referred to as “Mary,” in this article, formalized her allegation of childhood sexual abuse to the Archdiocese in late March, 2012. An archdiocesan review board, consisting of 11 volunteer members of child care professionals, law enforcement officials, attorneys, clergy and mental health professionals, met on April 23 to consider the complaint.

The review board advises the archbishop on sexual abuse cases. The review board, after a preliminary investigation, concluded that there was enough evidence to meet the church’s standard for a credible allegation. Six days later, the archbishop took action.

Mary’s claim arose during the time when she was a high school student in Norfolk, Nebraska in the early 1970’s. Mary alleged that Father Dvorak once struck up a friendship with her, but he then began to inappropriately hug her after Mass. These hugs progressed into kissing and sexual fondling.

The priest took the high school student on long drives in his car, where more sexual abuse occurred. Once, the priest got stuck in a snow drift, and Father Dvorak walked to a parishioner’s farmhouse. The priest instructed Mary to remain in the car. After a period of time when the priest had not returned, Mary followed the priest to the farmhouse. Father Dvorak was furious about being exposed, and told her that “she would be sorry” if she told anyone. The last incident of childhood sexual abuse occurred after Mary’s high school prom.

As a result of the abuse, Mary was depressed. It took her seven years to complete college. Despite recent counseling, Mary still struggles daily with what happened to her so long ago. Her lawyer, Eugene Hollander, states that, “She was extremely courageous for coming forward and identifying her abuser.”

The Archdiocese has stated that Father Dvorak has denied the allegations.

The Archdiocese of Omaha contacted the local state’s attorney, but because of the law at the time, Nebraska will be unable to prosecute Father Dvorak due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. Archbishop Lucas also referred the matter to the Vatican for further canonical proceedings. The Vatican could try the case in its own tribunal, send the case back to the Archdiocese of Omaha for a trial, or otherwise handle the matter administratively.

Recent Statistics Show That Cook County Juries Return Verdicts For Plaintiffs Half Of The Time

While many lay people believe that tort reform is necessary due to runaway juries, recent statistics by the Clerk of the Circuit of Cook County show that juries return verdicts for plaintiffs in personal injury cases only 51 percent of the time. The Clerk’s office found that since 2006, juries returned verdicts in 2,489 cases. Plaintiffs prevailed in 1,273 of those matters.

Although the percentage of plaintiff wins varied from year to year, it remained relatively constant. The low was in 2010, when plaintiff verdicts reached 49%. In 2008, plaintiffs had their best year for recoveries, obtaining 54% of the jury verdicts.

Overall, 2.8% of cases filed in the Law Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County, go to jury verdict. Further, the total amounts of the verdicts have declined. In 2006, Cook County juries collectively returned $609.6 million to plaintiffs; in 2011, that figure dropped to $176.8 million. It is likely that the drop can at least partially be attributed to the state of the economy – jurors are less likely to award large sums if they are out of work.

In federal court in Chicago, the number of jury trials has been on the rise. Once thought to be nearly extinct, there were twice as many civil jury trials in 2011 compared to 2006 – 127 compared to 56. Perhaps one of the biggest factors in the rise of trials has been the City of Chicago’s stance on civil rights cases. In 2009, the City took 27 civil rights cases to trial; in 2010, the number rose to 56. Last year, the City tried 91 civil rights cases in federal court.

In the employment arena, few cases proceed to trial. Many employer/defendants attempt to get a plaintiff’s employment case thrown out on a motion before a trial. Cases often settle shortly after the motion is denied. If the case proceeds to trial, the employer faces exposure for not only the plaintiff’s damages, but also the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. Oftentimes, the attorney’s fees can eclipse the other damages.

Civil Rights

Federal Appeals Court Allows Case Against City of Chicago To Proceed.

A visit to Chicago in 2006 by Christina Eilman turned out to be her worst nightmare. Eilman, who was mentally ill, exposed herself and screamed lewd remarks at strangers while she was at the CTA station at Midway Airport. The police arrested her and kept her in custody for one night.

The police released her the following day into a high-crime area. A few hours later, Eilman was abducted and raped. She was either pushed or fell out of a window at the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side. She sustained permanent brain damage as a result.

Eilman’s mother, Kathleen, filed suit against six of the police personnel, contending that they violated her daughter’s civil rights by not affording her proper medical treatment as she was mentally ill. Kathleen Eilman claims that she telephoned the police from her home in California and that she told them that her daughter suffered from bipolar disorder. The suit also alleged that police officers sent her into a dangerous environment and that Christina could not protect herself.

On April 26, 2012, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that six of the defendants could not be shielded from the lawsuit, and that the case could proceed against them. The Court rejected the Plaintiff’s theory that the police should have held her longer; however, the three member panel ruled that a jury could consider whether Christina was offered proper medical care and whether she was placed in a more dangerous situation. The reviewing court stated that, “They might as well have released her into the lions’ den at the Brookfield Zoo.” The case has been scheduled for a January 14, 2013 trial date.

Office News

In the September, 2011 issue of Legal Trends, we reported that our office secured a $3.25 million jury verdict in a breach of contract case, Paper Recovery, Inc. v. The Segerdahl Corporation. Since that time, the trial court denied the Defendants’ post-trial motions. Further, as the parties’ contract provided for attorney’s fees, the Plaintiff was entitled to recover that sum as well. The parties agreed to submit the issue to binding arbitration. In late January, 2012, the arbitrator awarded The Law Offices of Eugene K. Hollander and The Law Offices of Mitchell Ruchim a combined $610,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs. The case is presently under appeal. Eugene Hollander recently became licensed to practice law in the state of Arizona.