BILLINGS – A state judge in Custer County dismissed two critical complaints ahead of a massive civil sex abuse trial involving a former longtime high school athletic trainer and the Miles City Unified School District.
Judge Nickolas Murnion heard oral arguments during the summary judgment hearing, by both sides on May 17 in response to a motion, claiming two of the plaintiff’s complaints should be dismissed: negligence per se and vicarious liability based on the notion the counts are legally improper.
The original civil suit was filed in September against trainer Jim Jensen, 79 and the Miles City Unified School District by 32 former Custer County High School male student-athletes.
The men said they were repeatedly sexually abused at the hands of Jensen under the guise of treatment.
After weeks of review, Murnion found Monday that because Jensen was not the guardian of the abused, the district was permitted but not required to report any child abuse to state officials, according to state law.
In 1997, court documents said Miles City High School Vice Principal Jack Regan received a complaint by a parent regarding the conduct of Jensen. The complaint alleged that inappropriate behavior was taking place with Jensen and male student-athletes.
Later that year, the school district sent a letter to Jensen notifying that the district had been informed by at least three individuals about conduct involving male student-athletes, which violated the school’s “spirit and intent of policies.”
Plaintiffs allege that a coach, Jack Raymond, witnessed inappropriate massages with the students, but the district never reported suspected child abuse.
During the summary judgment hearing, an attorney for the school district argued that the plaintiffs’ complaint of negligence per se should be dismissed because it asserts the district had a mandatory duty to report child abuse when school officials heard of concerning behavior by Jensen.
According to the ruling, Murnion believed that “the school district’s position is well taken.” Murnion considered the statutorily defined caretaker; which, according to Montana law at the time, was a child’s parent, guardian, foster parent or adult who resides in the same home. It could also be a person providing care in a day-care facility or an employee of a public or private residential institution.
Murnion also granted the district’s wish to dismiss a claim of vicarious liability.
The district maintains it had no responsibility for Jensen because he was a volunteer for the district up until a certain point.
However, the attorney for the plaintiffs, John Heenan, said Monday that this most ruling only delays the goal of the civil case, whichi is to hold the district liable for the abuse. Heenan said that 99 percent of their argument is on the basis of vicarious liability, concerning the district.
Heenan said they plan to file another motion in Custer County District Court later Monday.
Plaintiffs alleged that because Jensen was under the supervision of the district, the district is also liable for the wrongful conduct of Jensen.
“We don’t perceive it as a loss. We see it as justice slightly delayed,” said Heenan.
Jensen has already admitted to federal charges of internet coercion related to the sexual abuse back in March in a Missoula Federal Court. He remains in federal custody.
–Andrea Lutz reporting for MTN News