The jury's courageous decision--accepting and crediting the word of a child with significant communication challenges over the sworn denials of his paraprofessional aide (Hasak) and the testimony of the school district's expert witness and administrators--has monumental implications for the special needs community and how that community is viewed by the general public. Out of more than 1,000 cases the firm has litigated over the years, the jury's verdict and decision easily stands out as one of the firm's most important achievements.
On October 15, 2009, John Doe told his parents that defendant Hasak had exposed his "peeper" and made him touch it. Never before had John made such an accusation. Following John's parents' complaint, the Darien police conducted an investigation into the matter and prepared and submitted a warrant for Hasak's arrest to the Senior Assistant State's Attorney in Stamford, who refused to sign the arrest warrant. For that reason, Hasak was never prosecuted criminally. In the meantime, the Darien school district conducted an internal investigation into the matter. Upon the conclusion of the school district's internal investigation, Mr. Hasak was reinstated as a special education aide, at which point he again served as a paraprofessional aide for children with disabilities in the Darien schools, this time chillingly being assigned to work with children who were less verbal than John Doe.
Central to the evidence presented to the jury was a compelling videotape interview of John Doe conducted in October, 2009 by the Lower Fairfield County Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART. During this interview, John gave an account of sexual abuse by Hasak that was consistent with what John had told his parents and the Darien schools' interview team. Dr. Steven Falcone, then Darien's Assistant Superintendent, admitted at the trial that the SART videotape was not viewed or considered as part of the school district's internal investigation before Hasak was reinstated by the Darien schools. During jury deliberations, the jury sent a note to Judge Arterton requesting to see the SART videotape for a second time.
Hasak, while most recently employed as a medical technician, earned screen credits for being a supporting actor in the 1998 film "Stepmom," starring Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon. Hasak testified at the trial, flatly denying all of the allegations against him. Hasak also denied having lied to the jury or during his sworn deposition. Hasak even denied ever having been an "actor."
During summations, Hasak's attorney argued that at best, Hasak had no more than "five minute" opportunities to be alone with John Doe. That argument was controverted by the testimony of former Assistant Superintendent Steven Falcone, whose internal investigation revealed that Hasak had numerous opportunities to be alone with John Doe for up to twenty minutes at a time. In order to drive home the point that an act of sexual abuse can occur in less than one minute, Mayerson demonstrated to the jury that he could easily take his suit jacket off and put it back on again eight times in sixty seconds.
Hasak's attorney asked the jury if Hasak, sitting next to his parents and fiancé, "looked" like the kind of person who would sexually abuse another person. In rebuttal, Mayerson spoke of the Penn State sex abuse scandal and recent disclosures involving Bill Cosby to underscore the fact that even people who are universally loved and trusted are capable of abusing that trust. Indeed, it is reported that approximately 94% of sex abusers are male and known and trusted by their victims. Moreover, children with disabilities are 4 to 10 times more vulnerable to sexual abuse than their non-disabled peers, with fabricated sexual abuse reports by children constituting less than 1% of all reports.
While John Doe and his parents sought the recovery of monetary damages, they did not bring this case for the prospect of a financial reward. Rather, as John Doe's father testified, the litigation was primarily brought to vindicate the worth and value of John's words--so that John's words would be respected, credited and acted upon just as they would if John did not have a disability. As John Doe's father explained:
Q. Why did you bring this case?
A. John's words need to have the same weight as anyone else's. If he can't make an accusation like this and be heard, then it's--it's open season on anybody with a disability.
On the second day of its deliberations, the jury returned a unanimous "yes" verdict on the question of whether Hasak had sexually abused John Doe. That question was the very first question appearing on the jury's verdict sheet. The jury thus accepted and credited John Doe's account and rejected the testimony of defendants' expert witness and more than a half dozen current and former employees of the Darien school system, all of whom had dismissed or challenged John Doe's allegations of sexual abuse. In other words, John's words were accepted and believed by the jury despite his diagnosis and communication challenges, and despite testimony to the contrary given by Hasak's aunt (Robin Pavia), and defendants' other witnesses.
After more than five years of denials by Hasak and the Darien school system, the jury's courageous verdict clearly has vindicated the worth and value of John Doe's words, offering greater protection in the future to others who would come forward to be heard.