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Lawyers debate YDC abuse verdict; millions in taxpayer money at stake

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
DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER
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

Parties on either side of the landmark lawsuit over abuse at the state’s juvenile jail remained at an impasse over the fate of a disputed $38 million verdict during a hearing in Rockingham Superior Court on Monday.

A jury awarded the historic verdict last month after they sided with plaintiff David Meehan in finding the state enabled child abuse at the former Youth Development Center in Manchester. The case was the first to go before a jury as more than a thousand other plaintiffs have come forward with allegations of abuse at youth facilities run or contracted by the state.

As soon as the verdict was delivered, however, the dispute about its actual meaning began.

Meehan’s attorneys celebrated what they called “the largest civil jury verdict in the history of the state of New Hampshire.” But attorneys with the state’s Department of Justice said Meehan should only receive $475,000, citing a state law capping damages in lawsuits against the state per incident.

On Monday, the two sides rehashed those arguments in front of Superior Court Judge Andrew Schulman.

One of Meehan’s attorneys, David Vicinanzo, said Meehan’s constitutional rights were at risk of being stripped away “based on an accident.”

“You’ve said it’s an accident, judge. We all know it’s an accident,” Vicinanzo said, referring to the jury’s finding of only a single “incident” of abuse during the trial, despite uncontradicted testimony to hundreds of sexual assaults and beatings.

But attorney Anthony Galdieri for the state disputed the notion that the jury misunderstood the meaning of the word “incident” on the verdict form. “I think the jury read into it what they thought it meant, based on the [jury] instruction that was given and against the evidence that was established,” said Galdieri. “I don’t think an agreed upon instruction is grounds now to unseat the verdict.”

In the days following the verdict, three jurors, including the foreperson, contacted Meehan’s attorneys to express their dismay over the possibility that the monetary damages to Meehan would be capped. One juror wrote in an email: “We the jury were in unanimous agreement that David suffers from 'one' incident/case of complex PTSD, as the result of 100+ episodes of abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional) that he sustained at the hands of the State's neglect.”

In an emergency motion filed days after the verdict, Meehan’s attorneys asked the judge to reconvene the jury, writing, “the Verdict Form’s finding of only one ‘incident’ is conclusively against the weight of the evidence and is logically inconsistent with the jury’s award of $38 million in damages. The jurors’ subsequent messages further confirm that the jury misunderstood… the Verdict Form.”

Judge Schulman denied the request to reconvene the jury, though he later wrote that the $38 million verdict “cannot be reconciled with the finding of a single incident.”

But on Monday, Schulman also expressed hesitancy to “do surgery on the jury’s verdict.”

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Ahead of Monday’s hearing, Schulman had laid out five options for how to resolve the dispute in an interim order. Of those, Schulman wrote, “the least incorrect” would, essentially, be for the judge himself to determine the number of incidents, if the state would agree to waive a new trial. Schulman said the “lowest reasonable number of incidents” was 155, which he wrote he would decrease by 25% to 116 in the state’s favor.

Attorneys for the state signaled Monday they would object to this proposal, which would likely set up a retrial.

Meehan’s attorneys meanwhile signaled they intend to file further motions on the disputed verdict. Schulman gave the parties until July 15 to do so.

How this disagreement over the amount Meehan could receive plays out could influence whether hundreds of other plaintiffs take their cases to court or file a claim with the state’s YDC settlement fund. Gov. Chris Sununu recently signed a bill to significantly raise the settlement caps offered by the fund; the maximum payout is now set at $2.5 million, up from $1.5 million.

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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.
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