A culture of crime
A Hall County jury decided this week that a Gainesville mental health and substance abuse treatment facility was negligent in a 16-year-old male patient’s molestation of two minor female patients.
The jury awarded damages of just $1 to the boy’s mother, however.
Janice Lowman, the mother of Corey Benjamin Pirkle, sued Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Laurelwood facility for what she claimed was lax oversight that indirectly led to her son molesting the girls in a bathroom adjoining their dorm room in November 2006.
Lowman’s son ultimately pleaded guilty to child molestation and statutory rape for having sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl and a 13-year-old girl. He was sentenced to 19 years of probation, a year under house arrest, and most significantly, was required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
In her lawsuit, Lowman claimed the arrest and guilty plea cost her family $34,000. The suit estimated Pirkle will suffer future "noneconomic damages" of $350,000 for the many restrictions placed on him under the terms of his probation as well as his status as a sex offender.
But a Hall County Superior Court civil jury, while agreeing that the hospital was negligent, awarded damages of $1 to Lowman and awarded no money to her son.
Attorneys for the two sides had differing opinions of the verdict.
"I consider it a vindication of Laurelwood," said Thomas Cole, who represented Northeast Georgia Health System in the case. Cole acknowledged that the hospital was found negligent, but "to the tune of $1."
"I can’t put myself in the minds of the jurors, but with an award of one dollar, it seems to me they didn’t think much of the plaintiff’s case," Cole said.
Plaintiffs’ attorney William S. Hardman disagreed. He said while his clients were disappointed in the damages awarded, they still won the case.
"The verdict the jury returned was in favor of the plaintiffs," Hardman said. "It was not very much money."
Lowman’s suit claimed Laurelwood staffers failed to monitor patients closely and did not institute or enforce policies to separate male and female patients into different areas. The facility has video cameras to monitor patient dorms, but none in the bathrooms for privacy reasons.
According to the lawsuit, Laurelwood’s records showed that a staffer checked on Pirkle every 15 minutes, the policy used for suicidal patients in their first 24 hours of admission. Lowman’s suit claimed that was unlikely, given what occurred.
Cole said Laurelwood officials reviewed their policies and procedures after the incident and made changes. During designated times, a staff member now sits in a chair in the halls to better monitor patient activity, he said.
"It’s just one more deterrent, and hopefully the kids won’t figure out a way to get around that," Cole said.
Hardman said there was no testimony during the trial that any changes had been made to Laurelwood’s policies and procedures since the incident. He said jurors asked Judge Bonnie Chessher Oliver whether they could stipulate in their verdict that Laurelwood make changes, but were told they could not.
"I guess the jury was trying to send a message to Laurelwood," Hardman said. "I’m worried that without an award of damages, that message may be ignored."
In September, Northeast Georgia Health System settled a lawsuit brought by the family of the 13-year-old girl who was a victim in the case.