The Walla Walla School District will pay a $330,000 offer of judgment in a lawsuit accusing the district of not protecting a student from a teacher previously accused of sexual assault, but never charged for it.
The lawsuit concluded this week with both lawyers framing the judgment in opposing ways.
On one side, the District’s legal team claimed there was “no admission of liability,” while the other group claimed a victory in the resolution of the matter.
An offer of judgment, according to Washington’s civil case rules, happens when a defending party offers to accept a judgment against itself and pay the plaintiff an amount specified by the defendant. If the other party accepts the offer, then a judgment is entered by the court.
According to the Washington Courts database, the case was brought for judgment before Walla Walla County Superior Court Judge Brandon L. Johnson Tuesday, Aug. 24.
The suit was filed in November 2020 and the offer of judgment was submitted July 29. The offer was accepted by the plaintiffs Aug. 4, according to court documents.
According to the judgment, the District will pay a little more than $333,000, including about $106,000 in attorney fees, $75,800 to the mother of the alleged victim, who filed the suit, and $151,000 to her daughter, according to court documents.
Johnson signed the judgment, which read that the accusers’ “complaint and action against … (the) District is dismissed with prejudice,” meaning the case can’t be brought back up again.
The accuser’s attorney, Darrell Cochran, of Tacoma, said the offer of judgment is much more meaningful than one might normally see in a case like this, where out-of-court settlements can be commonplace.
Cochran claimed the conclusion was a way for the district to cut its losses and avoid further, costly litigation.
“Not only is it an indication that the district did not feel confident in going forward in defending itself, but this is a direct admission that they were negligent,” Cochran said. “It is a complete admission of allegations that are made in the complaint.”
But Patricia Buchanan, attorney for the Walla Walla School District, said there should be nothing further concluded other than the language of the judgment signed in court.
“Specifically, there is no admission of liability or responsibility on the part of the district and any liability for any claims or alleged wrongdoing is expressly denied,” Buchanan said.
“The offer may not be construed as a waiver of any defenses or objections or an admission that plaintiffs were injured or damaged as a result of any action or inaction on the part of the district.”
The lawsuit challenged the district on its effectiveness and willingness in keeping supervision over Michael Jones, a former music teacher at Pioneer Middle School. Jones had some allegations of misconduct in 2008, before the person in this case was attending the school.
However, those allegations were dismissed because charges were never filed by Walla Walla County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle, according to previous reporting by the U-B.
The lawsuit alleges that the girl, who is now an adult, was touched inappropriately by Jones in the 2015-16 school year. No charges have been filed against him.
The people who filed the lawsuit are not being identified to protect the identity of the girl who was an alleged victim. Cochran’s spokesperson said the woman who filed the case has elected not to do any interviews at this time.
Jones has since retired after 30 years at Pioneer, but he was on administrative leave for much of his final year from October 2019 to August 2020, Buchanan said. The nature of that leave was not disclosed.
Cochran said the District failed to protect the student in question by allowing Jones “unfettered access to kids” while knowing there had been previous accusations.
Cochran acknowledged the strange nature of the case, given that the girl’s parents — who are divorced — were both closely entangled with local school matters in the Walla Walla Valley, making the case very personal to many involved.
“(It) made that unusually complex, in some ways,” Cochran said.
The Union-Bulletin could not reach Jones for comment.
Jedidiah Maynes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-526-8318.