The minor plaintiff was a twelve-year-old girl who was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, which greatly impaired her ability to communicate with others.
Because of her disabilities, the minor plaintiff was transported between school and home via an outside transportation company. The van had other similarly disabled children that rode to and from school with the minor plaintiff.
The minor plaintiff was able to communicate enough words to her mother for her mother to be extremely concerned that the van driver had sexually abused her daughter. Her mother contacted the local police who conducted a formal investigation into these allegations.
Based upon the investigation, the van driver was arrested and charged with sexual assault on a disabled person.
The investigation, including an analysis of the van’s GPS records, revealed that the van driver made unauthorized stops with the minor plaintiff in the van. The investigation also revealed that these stops were made at a nearby park and only on days when the weather was inclement, thereby ensuring privacy.
The minor plaintiff was able to direct the police to the park and communicate enough words that led to the ultimate charges being brought against the van driver.
As a result of the incidents, the minor plaintiff sexualized some behavior in stressful situations. She lifted her shirt when she would become anxious in certain settings. The minor plaintiff had never manifested such behavior before and her therapists believed it was in direct response to the sexual assault.
Counsel for the plaintiff retained a child psychiatrist with experience in treating victims of sexual trauma to evaluate the minor plaintiff. Given her lack of effective communication skills, she was unable to report her feelings to others regarding the incident. The child psychiatrist was prepared to testify that the minor plaintiff was at an even greater risk of trauma from an event such as this because she is unable to discuss her feelings and work through her emotions in therapy. He was prepared to testify that her inability to discuss her feelings does not, in any way, limit the impact of the event on the minor plaintiff, but rather caused to exacerbate the impact on her.
While no one could or would dispute the egregiousness of the allegations against the van driver, the challenge became proving that the incident had a negative and lasting effect on the minor plaintiff. By all accounts, she was doing as well or better in her classes, able to participate in extra-curricular activities, and had some meaningful friend relationships. The minor plaintiff’s mother was also motivated to resolve this case to ensure her daughter’s privacy regarding the facts of these events.
Claims were pursued against the van company’s automobile insurance policy and a separate sexual assault policy that provided some additional coverage. These claims – while intentional in nature – were covered under the automobile policy because they occurred on the van. As such, the incidents of sexual assault were considered as arising out of the use and operation of a motor vehicle.
The parties agreed to mediate and they were successful in reaching a settlement following a full-day mediation.
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