Sexual Abuse Victim Wins $1.75-Million Settlement

June 24, 2009

By: Norman MacInnes, The Lawyer's Weekly

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A woman who as a girl endured five years of sexual abuse by a priest that ended in a botched abortion has secured a settlement of almost $1.75-million.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of London, Ont. has agreed to pay Lou Ann Soontiens $1.745-million to settle her civil sexual assault suit. Costs, when settled, will likely push the total over $2-million.

“As far as we can determine, it is the largest settlement of an individual sexual abuse case in Canadian history,” Rob Talach told The Lawyers Weekly. Talach and Paul Ledroit of Ledroit Beckett in London, Ont. represented Soontiens.

The settlement sets a “psychological precedent,” said Talach, by acknowledging “that sexual abuse injuries can be catastrophic. The quantum shows that in this case the injuries were catastrophic.”

There’s no breakdown of the settlement figure, Talach said, but “it’s fair to say that there was some acceptance of general damages which would be close to the ‘cap,’ a substantial economic loss which canvassed her entire lifetime and into the future, and some contribution towards future care for her.”

The 1978 “Andrews trilogy” of Supreme Court of Canada cases imposed a cap on general non-pecuniary damages. Currently the cap amount is about $319,000. Ledroit and Talach had planned to argue at trial that the cap should not apply to sexual abuse cases.

“The diocese recognized that the overall damages here exceeded the cap and approvable pecuniary damages combined,” said Ledroit. That recognition “is a major step.”

Talach hopes the settlement will “encourage other counsel to get involved as plaintiffs’ counsel. There doesn’t seem to be a huge appetite in the legal profession to take on these cases. Hopefully this will change that, because there are a lot of victims of sexual abuse out there who need legal representation, and clearly a handful of law offices in the province can’t do it all.”

Talach explained that most victims of sexual assault, because of the long-term effects of the abuse, are not financially well off. “You have a client base that’s incapable of paying disbursements, let alone a retainer. So you have to be a law firm that’s willing to take these cases on a contingency.” A second problem, he said, is the historical nature of the evidence. “You’ve got quite a job proving liability in a lot of these cases because you’re going back 30 or 40 years.”

Witnesses may have died. In this case, even the perpetrator died during the course of the litigation. “So it’s a lot of work, a lot of risk. In years past, the reward wasn’t there in the sense that the damages weren’t substantial. But I think that’s changing, and that should encourage other law firms to take up this cause.”

The Soontiens settlement is significant because “it recognizes that childhood sexual assault can carry with it lifelong impacts on an individual’s ability to function in society,” said Barb Legate of Legate & Associates in London, Ont. who represents 33 of Rev. Charles Sylvestre’s victims.

For victims, the settlement “is a strong endorsement that what they’ve gone through is something that’s worthy of significant compensation,” she said.

But the size of the settlement will not necessarily encourage more victims to sue. For most, “it’s not about the money. They don’t go into [the lawsuit] thinking of it as a money-making venture; they think of it as a vehicle for someone to listen to the harm that has come to them.”

Many decide that coming forward is not worthwhile because they’re simply unprepared to re-live the experience in court, Legate said.

“It’s hard to know whether this is the highest settlement ever,” said Loretta Merritt of Torkin Manes LLP, “because defendants so often ask for confidentiality orders. But it’s definitely a move in the right direction.” Merritt, who has practised in this area for almost 20 years, noted that in the 1970s and 1980s, court awards were often in the $2,000 to $10,000 range. One was for only $500.

The lawyers for the defendants in Soontiens declined to comment.

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