Chippewa County jury awards over $10 million in abuse case
MONTEVIDEO — A Chippewa County jury has awarded a total of $10,199,000 in a civil lawsuit brought by a 42-year-old woman who alleged that her father had sexually abused her when she was a child.
The seven-member jury determined the award in favor of Dawne Schoep, of Washington, D.C., and against Jay Allen Schoep Sr., 62, of Maynard, following deliberations for two days last week. The deliberations followed testimony by Dawne Schoep and her sister, Laura Schoep, that they had been abused as children. Dawne Schoep testified that the abuse began when she was 4 years old and continued until she was 13.
Jay Schoep stipulated to three incidents of molestation against his daughter, but denied the other allegations of abuse through those years, according to his attorney, Kevin Stroup.
Dawne Schoep said she does not anticipate collecting the full award, or even a major portion of it. Her father does not have insurance or the resources. But she said it was important for her to bring the case forward in a public trial "to give a voice'' to herself and other victims of sexual abuse.
Winning a large award helps give a loud voice for victims, and was important for that reason, she said. Schoep and her attorney, Brian Wojtalewicz, said they felt it was important to send a strong message to the perpetrators of sexual abuse that there is a day of reckoning, even if they may not be prosecuted under criminal law.
"(Her) lawyer didn't do my daughter any justice by getting this huge number because it just makes it impossible,'' said Jay Schoep. "I can't do anything with it,'' he said, explaining that the amount is well beyond his means.
Schoep said he had offered $50,000 to $60,000 during the initial settlement phase for any treatment costs or other problems experienced by his daughter. He said he subsequently offered to sign over farmland valued at approximately $250,000 to her with the intention of actually transferring it when he has paid the mortgage on it. He said he has no property free of a mortgage.
Schoep said he admitted wrongdoing, but felt that the plaintiff made things look a "thousand times worse than it really was. The truth of the story is not that I never did anything wrong,'' he said.
"The truth of the story is that the story got exaggerated. But the real important thing is at this point the lawyer exaggerated the dollar figure.''
Dawne Schoep was able to file the civil case for personal injury due to legislation that came in response to reports of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The legislation opened a three-year window, from May 2013 to May 2016, for victims to bring civil cases for abuse committed when they were children and after the statute of limitations expired.
Dawne Schoep said she and her sister had attempted to press a civil lawsuit against their father when they were in their mid-20s. They learned that the statute of limitations would not allow them to do so.
Wojtalewicz said his client had until she was 19 years old to seek criminal charges. Dawne Schoep said she did not have the emotional strength to come forward at that age.
Her attorney said she remained in fear of her father at that time, and that she was living with the shame of being a victim.
Dawne Schoep testified during the trial that she has suffered anxiety and fear from childhood through her adult life due to her experiences. She testified to a number of abuses including an alleged rape, and said that at age 11 she went through a pregnancy scare.
Dawne Schoep said she is better able to process her experiences as time has passed, but continues to have difficulties with everything from trusting other people to sleeping because of it.
The jury's award includes $7,862,000 compensation for past pain and emotional distress; $1,752,000 for future pain and emotional distress; and $585,000 for punitive damages.
Wojtalewicz said that many might be surprised by an award this large in a rural county. He said the jury considered not only the alleged abuse, but the fear and distress his client experienced in between the alleged incidents over the course of many years. "They were not molested every day, but every day that they weren't molested there was the fear,'' he said.
The father who should have protected them was the alleged perpetrator, making the harm greater, the attorney said.
Defense attorney Stroup said the case should have been settled, since his client does not have the resources for the award. He said that he believed the plaintiff's attorney sought a large award through a jury trial for "PR purposes.''
Stroup said he questions the legislation that allowed allegations to be brought forward after so much time has elapsed. In this case, the allegations occurred 29 to 38 years ago. He said that raises the issue of how accurate are the memories.
The defense attorney said the timing of this case also worked against his client, and predisposed the jury against him. He pointed to the publicized accounts of abuse in the Catholic Church, the Jacob Wetterling case, and the recent debacle with the Gopher football team. "The issue is highly emotional for obvious reasons and I think that impacted the jury,'' Stroup said.
Jay Schoep said he is not bitter over what happened. "I believe my life is in the Lord's hands and I just have to walk day-by-day where he leads me.''
Dawne Schoep said she wants to encourage other victims of abuse to come forward despite their fears, and for those reasons also believes a public trial was important. She said the court system was supportive of her, and the experience of confronting her alleged perpetrator — her father — has helped in her own healing.
She also praised the legislation that allowed her claim to be filed, and said it played a role in her decision to go forward. "People worked hard to change the law. This gives more value to the law, people are using it. It's working,'' she said.
Before she left the courthouse Dec. 23, the jury forewoman sought her out and gave her a hug.