Judge says $475,000 award in New Hampshire youth center abuse case would be 'miscarriage of justice'

FILE - Superior Court Justice Andrew Schulman conducts a bench hearing with lawyers during the trial for David Meehan at Rockingham Superior Court in Brentwood, N.H., Wednesday, April 10, 2024. In an order Wednesday, May 22, 2024, Schulman described five options for dealing with a dispute that arose after the verdict but said capping the $38 million award at $475,000 as the state proposes would be a "miscarriage of justice." (David Lane/Union Leader via AP, Pool, file)

By HOLLY RAMER Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The judge who oversaw a landmark trial over abuse at New Hampshire’s youth detention center says capping the verdict at $475,000 as the state proposes would be an “unconscionable miscarriage of justice.”

In a lengthy order issued Wednesday, Judge Andrew Schulman outlined five options for addressing the dispute that arose after a jury awarded $38 million to a man who said he was beaten and raped hundreds of times at the Youth Development Center but found the state liable for only one incident of abuse. Jurors weren’t told that state law caps claims against the state at $475,000 per “incident,” and some later said they wrote “one” to reflect a single case of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from more than 100 episodes of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

“The cognitive dissonance between a $38 million verdict and the finding of a ‘single incident’ of actionable abuse cannot stand,” wrote Schulman, who acknowledged that he should have instructed the jury more clearly.

Schulman already has rejected what he called the two worst options: reconvening the jury or questioning them about their decision. The latter would mean no verdict would have finality because jurors could upend them based on little more than “buyer’s remorse,” he wrote.

He appeared equally against the third option, granting the state’s motion to apply the damages cap to the single “incident” found by the jury.

“There was plainly more than one incident,” he wrote. “Entering a verdict of $475,000, when the only proper verdict is many multiples of that number would be a gross and unconscionable miscarriage of justice.”

That leaves two options: ordering a new trial or adjusting the number of incidents on the verdict form. Schulman said a new trial would be a “legally correct” but extremely burdensome choice that could delay justice not only for the plaintiff, David Meehan, but the more than 1,100 other former residents of the youth center who have filed similar lawsuits. He also noted that another monthlong trial could be harmful to Meehan’s mental health.

“The least incorrect” option, Schulman said, might be something akin to a process by which a judge can add damages to an original amount awarded by the jury if a defendant waives a new trial. He calculated that the lowest reasonable number of incidents was 155 and proposed reducing that by 25% as a “large deliberate error” in the state’s favor.

“Although the determination of witness credibility is not the court’s to make, in the court’s eyes, the plaintiff was a most credible witness,” he wrote. “No reasonable jury could have accepted the gist of plaintiff’s testimony, awarded $38 million in damages, and found less than 116 incidents.”

Meehan, 42, went to police in 2017 and sued the state three years later. Since then, 11 former state workers have been arrested though charges against one of them were dropped after he was found incompetent to stand trial.

Over the four-week trial, Meehan’s attorneys argued that the state encouraged a culture of abuse marked by pervasive brutality, corruption and a code of silence. The state, which portrayed Meehan as a violent child, troublemaking teenager and delusional adult, argued that he waited too long to sue and that it shouldn’t be held liable for the actions of “rogue” employees.

A hearing on the verdict dispute is scheduled for next month.