An Oregon jury’s decision to award a man $18.5 million in punitive damages in his case against the Boy Scouts of America will likely be the first of many financial hits the Scouts will take as it prepares to defend itself against a series of sex abuse lawsuits.
The jury on Friday ordered the Scouts to make the payment to Kerry Lewis, the victim of sex abuse by a former assistant Scoutmaster in Portland in the early 1980s.
The case was the first of six filed against the Boy Scouts in the same court in Oregon, with at least one other separate case pending. If mediation fails to settle the other cases, they also could go to trial.
Lawyers for Lewis had asked the jury to award at least $25 million to punish the Boy Scouts for what the jury had already agreed in the first phase of the trial was reckless and outrageous conduct.
They also noted the Boy Scouts had never apologised to Lewis, who said on Friday at a news conference that the verdict shows that “big corporations can’t be above the law.”
Lewis added that an apology “would mean something to me, but I’m not expecting it.”
The jury decided on April 13 that the Boy Scouts were negligent for allowing former assistant Scoutmaster Timur Dykes to associate with Scouts, including Lewis, after Dykes admitted to a Scouts official in 1983 that he had molested 17 boys.
The jury awarded Lewis $1.4 million in compensatory damages with that verdict and agreed the Boy Scouts were liable for punitive damages to be determined in the second phase of the trial that ended on Thursday.
Scouts officials declined to comment on details of the case because other cases are pending, but issued a statement saying it maintains a “rigorous” system to screen Scout leaders.
“The Boy Scouts of America has always stood against child abuse of any kind,” it said.
The verdict came as the Boy Scouts mark their centennial.
For more than a month, dueling experts and a parade of witnesses from both sides wove together a picture of an organisation that compiled secret files on child molesters for nearly the entire century it has been in existence.
The “ineligible volunteer” files, nicknamed the “perversion files,” are kept under lock and key at Scouts headquarters, now in Irving, Texas, a practice that began back in the 1920s.
The Scouts said the files were put to good use quietly keeping molesters out of the organization for all those years. But Lewis’ attorneys argued that the Scout should have brought the files out into the open decades ago.
After an Oregon Supreme Court ruling, the jury was permitted to see about 1,000 of the files from 1965-85.
In determining the award, the jury was allowed to consider the wealth of the Boy Scouts to decide the amount of punitive damages.
Kelly Clark and Paul Mones, the attorneys for Lewis, told them the Boy Scouts were nearly a $1 billion corporation that could well afford punitive damages intended to deter them from similar conduct in the future.
The amount of the damages surprised Patrick Boyle, editor of the Youth Today newspaper and author of a book about sex abuse within the Scouts.
“That’s a lot of money. This is by far the biggest award against the Scouts for sex abuse, probably by several times,” Boyle said.
The Scouts have said they plan to appeal Friday’s decision, and 60% of any punitive damages they finally pay in the case will go to the Oregon crime victims fund under state law.
Because the Boy Scouts have settled some lawsuits out of court, it is difficult to say where the total awards imposed by the Portland jury rank with those of the past.
In a 1987 sex abuse case, an Oregon jury awarded more than $4 million to the victim, including $2 million in punitive damages against the Scouts that were thrown out when the case was appealed. A jury in San Bernardino, California, awarded $3.75 million to three sex abuse victims in 1991.
Boyle said from 1984 through 1992, the Scouts were sued at least 60 times for alleged sex abuse with settlements and judgments totaling more than $16 million.