Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today to support the journalism you rely on!

Jury awards $38M to plaintiff in landmark NH child abuse lawsuit

YDC plaintiff David Meehan testifies in his civil trial at Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood on April 17, 2024. David Lane/Union Leader POOL
YDC plaintiff David Meehan testifies in his civil trial at Rockingham County Superior Court in Brentwood on April 17, 2024. David Lane/Union Leader POOL

To hear Jason Moon discuss the verdict with All Things Considered Host Julia Furukawa, click the play button above.

Jurors in Rockingham County on Friday found the state of New Hampshire enabled child abuse at the former Youth Development Center.

After deliberating for approximately three hours, the jury awarded the plaintiff, David Meehan, $38 million in damages — however, the state claims the amount Meehan actually receives will be capped.

While Meehan’s attorneys celebrated what they called “the largest civil jury verdict in the history of the state of New Hampshire,” the state justice department said Meehan would only receive $475,000, citing a state law capping damages in lawsuits against the state per incident. Assistant Attorney General Brandon Chase claimed the jury found “only one incident,” but did not elaborate on whether it found one incident of abuse or grouped all the incidents Meehan testified to on the stand.

“They can say whatever they want,” said Meehan’s attorney, Rus Rilee. “All I can say is he got a verdict of $38 million.”

The jury awarded Meehan $18 million in compensatory damages for the pain he says he’s suffered from the abuse, and $20 million in so-called enhanced damages for the state’s negligence in allowing the abuse to happen.

“David Meehan is overwhelmed and overjoyed today by what happened,” said Rilee.

The landmark civil trial was the first of more than a thousand similar lawsuits filed since 2020, alleging rampant physical, sexual, and psychological abuse of children detained at the juvenile jail and more than 50 other youth facilities that contracted with the state since the 1990s. The verdict could be a bellwether for the hundreds of similar cases still pending.

Meehan filed suit in January 2020, alleging the state Department of Health and Human Services failed to protect him from severe abuse he says he suffered at the hands of YDC staff in the 1990s. Meehan claimed the department, which oversees juvenile justice services, enabled this child abuse by failing in its responsibility to care for children in its custody — and for failing to take reasonable steps in the hiring, training, and supervising of YDC staff.

During the weeks-long trial, Meehan testified he entered state custody at YDC in 1995 when he was 13 years old, after a difficult early childhood. Meehan told jurors he was raped repeatedly by former YDC staffer Jeffrey Buskey and other employees. Buskey is currently facing criminal charges for the abuse Meehan alleges. He has pled not guilty.

Five former YDC staffers, including several who served as ombudsmen and investigated complaints, told jurors of a violent culture where management told staff not to take the word of children over employees and where supervisors resisted training for themselves and their staff. A former social studies teacher at the on-site school testified she reported suspected abuse of Meehan and other children to YDC management and state child protective services, but did not receive a response.

Attorneys for the state argued that “there was no widespread culture of abuse,” and that the state is not liable for the criminal actions of “rogue” employees.

Top stories of the day, 3X a week - subscribe today!

* indicates required

This underscored the awkward dynamic swirling above this civil trial: As the state defends itself against a flood of similar lawsuits, the attorney general’s office is also prosecuting 11 former YDC staff, and the state has agreed to pay out more than $66 million to 134 claimants from a designated settlement fund.

The latest report from the fund indicates an increasing number of claimants are among the more than a thousand people who originally filed lawsuits against the state. A bill working its way through the state Legislature would increase the payouts currently offered by the fund to $2.5 million and allow for claims based on additional categories of abuse.

How the disagreement over the amount Meehan could receive plays out could influence whether other plaintiffs take their cases to court or file a claim with the settlement fund.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
Related Content

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.