Minehart v. Morning Star Boys Ranch, Inc.
Currently there are several cases in the Spokane County Superior Court involving the Morning Star Boys Ranch (the Ranch). The trial court has separated 19 cases into individual trials. The cases are brought by former residents of the Ranch that allege that they were sexually abused by Father Joe Weitensteiner and/or other members of the staff of the facility. In addition to having Fr. Weitensteiner found individually liable, the plaintiffs seek to hold the Ranch liable for damages on various theories including civil conspiracy and vicarious liability.
The first of the 19 trials resulted in a defense verdict. In the second case, this case involving plaintiff George Minehart, the trial court ruled that it would exclude all testimony from witnesses claiming that they were also sexually molested, but never reported the incident to staff at the Ranch (holding that the testimony’s prejudice outweighed its probative value). But if the witness had reported the incident to staff, then the trial court allowed the testimony to support the claims of conspiracy and vicarious liability. Both parties sought discretionary review of the Court of Appeals; plaintiff appealing the exclusion of the witnesses’ testimony and the Ranch appealing the admission of other witnesses’ testimony and the suppression of Fr. Weitensteiner’s passed polygraph test. The trial was stayed pending this appeal.
For you lay people, this is what they call an interlocutory review. Basically the trial court has issued an order and the appealing party feels that the alleged error is reasonably certain and its impact on the trial manifest. The appeal is filed while the trial is still pending, but the appealing party feels that the error will affect the outcome of the trial and thus it can’t wait to appeal the case after a final judgment.
In this case, both parties claimed that the discretionary review by the Court of Appeals was necessary under the rules because (1) The superior court had committed an obvious error which would render further proceedings useless; and (2) The superior court had committed probable error and the decision of the superior court substantially altered the status quo or substantially limited the freedom of a party to act.
The Court of Appeals reviewed the trial court’s evidentiary rulings for an abuse of discretion. Discretion is abused when it is exercised on untenable grounds or for untenable reasons. The Court of Appeals found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion and there were no obvious or probable errors. This decision goes into each ruling that the trial court made and why each one did not meet the standards for discretionary review. I’m not going to go into each of those here, but if you are interested you can click on the link to the case and read on!
While the plaintiffs in these cases won’t be able to use witnesses that didn’t report their own abuse, they still have the witnesses who did report the abuse. It will be interesting to see how the rest of these cases play out.