Judge: Insurance Companies Must Pay Out $345 Million to Darlington Sex Abuse Victims

Walker County Messenger [LaFayette GA]

April 20, 2024

By John Bailey

Dismissing insurance company claims, including that sexual abuse is not considered bodily injury, a judge ordered them to pay out $345 million to men who were sexually abused by a Darlington teacher in the 1970s and ’80s.

The plaintiffs alleged that Roger Stifflemire, who taught English at the school in Rome, Ga., from 1974 to 1994, used his authority and influence as a teacher and dorm parent to obtain their trust, which he then exploited to sexually abuse them both on and off campus.

However, those allegations didn’t come to light until 2016. The Hidden Predator Act, passed in 2015, allowed the nearly 20 former students and their families to seek a civil penalty for the abuse.

The law allowed a two year window for childhood abuse victims to file a civil lawsuit which would have normally been outside the statute of limitations. Stifflemire has not faced a criminal prosecution in this case and the window to prosecute any alleged crimes has passed.

Each of the defendants has settled. Darlington settled in November 2021 and paid out $6 million for its part of the settlement, bringing the settlement total to $351 million, according to the order. Stifflemire settled, but had no appreciable assets.

But because of those settlements, the plaintiffs were able to seek payment from insurance companies that represented the defendants. The insurance companies denied coverage and sought — but failed — to have those claims tossed.

The insurance companies then requested to have Senior Judge Adele Grubbs issue a summary judgment in the matter rather than going to a jury trial.

In an order filed April 15, Judge Grubbs dismissed arguments made by the individual insurance companies representing the school and other defendants.

Among other arguments, the insurance companies questioned whether the incidents happened during the coverage period and whether the claims were timely filed.

“The insurance companies have raised several issues that take the position that there is no coverage under their policies because Darlington and Stifflemire settled without permission,” Grubbs wrote in her order. “That position is erroneous.”

At least one of the companies put forward the argument that sexual abuse isn’t considered bodily injury according to their definitions.

In no uncertain terms Judge Grubbs dismissed that particular argument.

“Yes, sexual abuse is bodily injury,” she wrote.

The claims awarded to the plaintiffs are:

  • Continental Casualty Company — $1,000,000;
  • Northern Insurance Company — $10,000,000;
  • Zurich American Insurance Company — $92,000,000;
  • North River Insurance Company — $10,000,000; and
  • Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company — $232,000,000.

Now, it’s likely those companies will file an appeal, further drawing out an already protracted case.