AG: Bill would reduce YDC lawsuits by paying victims more, expanding eligibility

As of March 31, the most recent data available, the state had received 418 claims, many of them this year, according to the office administering the fund.

As of March 31, the most recent data available, the state had received 418 claims, many of them this year, according to the office administering the fund. Annmarie Timmins—New Hampshire Bulletin

By ANNMARIE TIMMINS

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 04-30-2024 9:46 AM

The state is responding on two fronts to the hundreds of claims of sexual and physical abuse from individuals held as children at the former Youth Development Center: in a Brentwood courtroom, where it is defending itself against the first of what could be hundreds of costly lawsuits, and at the Legislature.

Attorney General John Formella has asked lawmakers for $60 million to increase settlement payments to victims. Senate Bill 591 would also expand the type of abuse covered. The aim is to encourage more people to settle rather than sue. 

The bill is not retroactive, however, and will not allow victims who’ve settled for the existing payment caps to seek more money.

The legislation has passed the Senate and is scheduled to go before the House Thursday, with a unanimous recommendation from the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee that it pass.

Should the bill succeed, Michal Cantor, a lawyer with Nixon Peabody, which represents nearly 1,000 victims, told lawmakers earlier this month that the firm would advise clients to drop their lawsuits and settle with the state instead.

The Attorney General’s Office is defending itself against a lawsuit from one of Nixon Peabody’s clients now. David Meehan testified before a jury this month about significant, ongoing abuse he suffered from staff at YDC. 

“We support this bill for our clients because it makes our clients feel validated,” Cantor said. 

Formella said spending more money now could ultimately save the state money because it could lead to fewer lawsuits. Formella told the House committee that his office can control what it pays victims to settle a claim but not what juries may award them in a civil trial.

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His argument appears to have been persuasive. 

“The committee unanimously agreed,” it wrote in recommending the bill pass, “that though there is no amount of money that can compensate the victims for the harms suffered, this bill will benefit many child abuse survivors who have avoided the current process because of its limited scope, low caps on recovery, and overly complex procedures.” 

The legislation would create a new category for “egregious” sexual abuse, defined as “wanton or cruel” abuse, that goes beyond what most victims experience. Claims would be capped at $2.5 million.

Victims of non-egregious sexual and “other” abuse, another new category, could be paid up to $1.5 million. Other abuse would include unlawful restraint, confinement, strip searches, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The same cap would apply for claims of non-egregious sexual abuse alone. 

If a victim filed a claim for only other abuse, the cap would be $250,000.

As of March 31, the most recent data available, the state had received 418 claims, many of them this year, according to the office administering the fund. In 2023, the office received 259 claims. In the first three months of this year, the number was 159.

Claims are resolving slowly. The office has settled 134 claims for a total of $66.3 million.

Chuck Douglas, who has represented about 20 clients who chose to settle with the state rather than file a lawsuit, said it is unfair to limit the enhanced payments to only new claimants. He said about five of his clients received the maximum payments under the current practice and could be entitled to more money if the bill was retroactive.

“Now they are being punished for doing what the state wanted,” Douglas said, referring to opting against a lawsuit.

Senate President Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, helped Formella lobby the House committee to support it.

“There are some 1,000 cases, maybe more,” Bradley said. “If they were not to settle on a large number of those it would clog our courts up for years with unknown outcomes in the litigation process. Unknown outcomes could mean a huge expenditure for the state that is not only not able to be determined but not able to be managed.”