(Mercury News) Two years after San Jose schoolgirls branded a teacher as a “perv” and “creeper” who inappropriately touched kids and peeked into their restroom, a civil jury Friday found the children and their parents financially liable for defamation in a case that pitted the rights of the accused against the aim of reporting perceived abuse.
The jury awarded $362,653 in compensatory damages to former Catholic school physical education teacher John Fischler after finding the families spread false statements about him that damaged his reputation. The 49-year-old broke into a huge smile Friday when he heard the favorable verdict, which his lawyer characterized as “complete vindication.”
“I’m grateful the jury was able to see through the smoke screen and the truth came out.” Fischler said in a choked voice outside the courtroom. “There’s always going to be a scar. But the jury saw through the deception.”
The Santa Clara County Superior Court panel also found that one of the girls — who was 11 years old at the time — acted with malice and is liable for punitive damages. The jury will decide how much during the second phase of the trial, which begins Monday. Judge William J. Monahan admonished jurors not to discuss the trial until it’s over.
The verdict shocked the families and their attorneys, who were confident that the jury would heed their warning that a decision against them for complaining that the teacher made their children uncomfortable would have a chilling effect on the reporting of school abuse.
“If this trial prevents one little girl or one mother or father from reporting suspected abuse,” lawyer Lee J. Danforth said Friday, “then this is profoundly sad for our society.”
But the jury believed the counter-argument by Fischler’s lawyer, Robert Vantress, that the families did not merely discuss their concerns with school officials, they essentially gossiped about it.
The unusual case began in 2011 when administrators at Holy Spirit school in Almaden Valley were told that teacher John Fischler had inappropriately touched their 10- and 11-year-old girls and peeked in a girls’ bathroom. School officials and police cleared Fischler of sexual misconduct.
But the teacher, claiming the ordeal had indelibly stained his reputation and ruined his teaching career, declined to return to what he called a poisonous atmosphere at work and filed a lawsuit seeking nearly $1 million in damages.
The lawsuit contended he was the victim of a “conspiracy” by “classic parent bullies” and their daughters, including a popular girl he described as having a “gang-leader-like personality,” to get him fired from the private Catholic school where he was an at-will employee.
It took the jury of nine women and three men about four days to reach Friday’s verdict.
To prove defamation, at least nine out of 12 jurors had to find by a “preponderance of the evidence” that a statement was false, injurious and not of legitimate interest to its recipients. And, in the toughest hurdle to overcome, the panel also had to decide the statement wasn’t merely opinion.
Fischler claimed several other causes of action, including negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Jurors had to weigh the evidence against each of the seven defendants — three girls and their four parents. They found the former teacher was only 10 percent responsible for the harm he endured.
They came down hardest on the “ringleader” student and the mother of the other two girls.
The demeanor of the “ringleader,” now 14, appeared to have alienated the jury. She giggled often while testifying, and twice got off the witness stand, stood in front of the jury box and demonstrated a dance move and chant a school cheer. The jurors sat grim-faced without smiling.
In contrast, Fischler and his lawyer Robert Vantress were childhood friends, and Vantress argued the teacher’s case with nearly humorless passion.
The trial may be winding down, but it won’t be easy for everyone to move on in the Almaden Valley community, where one of Fischler’s sons goes to the same school as the “ringleader.”
But Fischler said he will counsel his son not to embarrass the girl by discussing it.
“I just feel good my name is cleared,” Fischler said.”