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$140M settlement in Miramonte civil suit against LAUSD [updated]

Teacher Mark Berndt
L.A. Sheriff's Department
Former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt.

Lawyers for the Los Angeles Unified School District have reached a settlement in which the district is agreeing to pay a total of nearly $140 million to dozens of students of Miramonte Elementary School who had filed a civil lawsuit against the district over its handling of the sexual abuse case of former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt. 

This is the largest civil settlement L.A. Unified has ever agreed to in a sex abuse case. The district had previously settled suits brought on behalf of 65 other Miramonte students for a total of about $30 million, according to LAUSD spokesman Sean Rossall.

The size of the settlement "shows a level of culpability and contrition by the district for what they allowed to happen to these kids," said John Manly, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "We hope this sends a message to [LAUSD] that, if you ever do this again, you’re gonna get obliterated," he added. 

"Our goal from the outset of these appalling revelations has been to spare the Miramonte community the anguish of a protracted trial, while at the same time being mindful of the financial consequences stemming from settlements," L.A. Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines said in a statement.

"Given these circumstances, we believe we struck a balance between those objectives," he added.

The settlement sets up a fund of $139,250,000, and "an independent process has been established with the court that will allow the judge to review each of the claims and assign the appropriate individual amount," according to the district's statement. The suit was brought on behalf of 82 children, according to the law firm of Manly Stewart & Finaldi, which represented many of the plaintiffs.

The district's statement acknowledged that L.A. Unified's Board of Education "extended itself and significant financial resources to resolve these cases." 

KPCC is seeking reaction from the members of the LAUSD board. Tamar Galatzan and Monica Ratliff have declined to comment.

Berndt was arrested in 2012 and charged with 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children. He is serving a 25-year sentence after pleading no contest to the charges. His alleged crimes included feeding students semen-laced cookies and taking pictures of them blindfolded. Several months after Berndt's  sentencing, Judge John Wiley Jr., who is hearing the civil suit settled Monday, said an L.A. Sheriff's Department investigation found that Berndt's alleged crimes went beyond what had been previously disclosed, including  touching girls’ genitalia,  inducing children to touch his genitalia, and exposing his genitalia to students.

In September, documents made public in the suit revealed that L.A. Unified had received complaints as far back as 1983 about possible sexual misconduct by Berndt.

Funds to pay the Miramonte settlement were "set aside in this current year's budget," said LAUSD General Counsel Mark Holmquist.

It's unclear exactly how much L.A. Unified will have to pay towards the settlement, and how much its insurance companies will pay. In May 2013, one of LAUSD's insurers, Everest National Insurance Co., sued the district in an attempt to avoid paying any settlement costs related to child sexual abuse lawsuits.

The insurer "disputes that there is any coverage under the Everest policies" for sexual abuse claims," it said in its complaint, arguing that "a judicial declaration is necessary and appropriate" to settle the issue. Everest also named six other L.A. Unified insurers as defendants, calling on the courts to resolve how much liability any of them might have in sexual abuse lawsuit settlements.

The Everest lawsuit has been stayed pending its next status conference, scheduled for January 16, 2015, said Rossall.

The pre-trial period in the Miramonte civil suit was marked by rancorous wrangling among the attorneys for the two sides, with L.A. Unified finding itself on the defensive on more than one occasion.

In May, Judge Wiley fined LAUSD $6,000 for failing to disclose that it had hundreds of photographs in its possession, some of which showed children being abused by Berndt, according to the judge's ruling.

In April, L.A. Unified said it had destroyed 20 years' worth of suspected child abuse reports, but by September, questions had arisen as to whether the documents had been destroyed.

Judge Mary Strobel, who was hearing the case at the time, ordered an investigation into the matter, during which plaintiffs' attorneys accused L.A. Unified officials of forcing an employee to change her testimony about the handling of newly discovered child abuse reports.

LAUSD spokesman Rossall dismissed the accusation, insisting the district was communicating "transparently" with the court and plaintiffs' attorneys.

This story has been updated.