City school suit given chance at new trial

By Michele C. Hladik

The verdict was overturned due to a witness testimony.

COLUMBUS — Both sides in a lawsuit against the Youngstown City School District are happy with an Ohio Supreme Court decision to give the case back to an appellate court to determine if a new trial is warranted.

“We’re certainly pleased with the decision,” said John Pfau, who represented the district in the case.

“I’m confident the appellate court will do what is appropriate.”

The Ohio Supreme Court voted 7-0 to return the case to the 7th District Court of Appeals. The case against the school district centered on whether a teacher neglected to suspect and report alleged abuse of a student after reading his journal entries.

Cleveland attorneys Chris Vlasich and Joel Levin represent the student’s family.

“We’re perfectly happy with that,” Vlasich said. “It gives us another chance to plead our case.”

The high court reversed only part of the appellate court’s decision overturning a jury verdict in favor of the school district based on faulty jury instructions and problems with one of the district’s witnesses, Kathryn Mercer, a law professor at Case Western Reserve Law School.

“... The court of appeals held that Mercer’s testimony went too far when she told the jury what the statute allegedly says,” Justice Lundberg Stratton wrote. “We agree.”

According to the high court, Mercer’s testimony on what the statute says was not accurate.

“The court of appeals held that allowing Mercer to interpret for the jury what the statute requires was erroneous,” Lundberg Stratton wrote. “Consequently, the court of appeals concluded that the trial court abused its discretion in allowing Mercer to testify to this extent. We agree.”

Vlasich said overturning a jury verdict is “a long shot” so they are pleased to have made it as far in the process as they have to this point.

Vlasich said he believes the appellate court will order a new trial based on the testimony presented by one of the district’s witnesses.

“I think there is a good chance it will be returned [to the trial court],” he said.

Pfau said he is confident the outcome would be in the district’s favor if the matter were returned to the trial court.

“I would think we would have the same result,” the Youngstown attorney said. “It would be easier to try.”

The issue arises from the case of a Youngstown fourth-grader during the 1999-2000 school year who reportedly wrote in his creative writing journal about abusive situations at the hands of his mother and begged his teacher not to tell.

The boy, who is now 18, attended the gifted and talented classes at West Elementary School and was taught language arts by Helen Marino, a veteran teacher.

The boy’s father filed suit against the district for Marino’s alleged failure to report the incidents.

Vlasich said the family is seeking a monetary settlement, but added he has no idea what that will be at this time.

He said an apology by the school district to the student would also be nice, but he admitted that by the time cases get to this point there is little chance of that happening.

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