Decision in Sheehan V. Oblates of St. Francis De Sales

Supreme Court of the State of Delaware
February 22, 2011


James E. Sheehan filed a personal injury action under 10 Del. C. 8145, the Child Victim's Act, against several institutional defendants, including the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and Salesianum School, for the alleged sexual abuse he suffered in 1962 by Father Francis Norris, a teacher at Salesianum. The Child Victim's Act (CVA), enacted in 2007, abolished the civil statute of limitations for claims of childhood sexual abuse and created a two year window to allow victims of childhood sexual abuse to bring civil suits that the statute of limitations previously barred. After a jury trial, the jury found the Oblates, but not Salesianum, negligent under Section 8145. However, the jury did not find that the Oblates' negligence had proximately caused Sheehan's injuries.

Sheehan asserts that the trial judge committed numerous reversible errors. We reverse and remand for a new trial for two reasons: (1) because the trial judge failed to properly balance, on the record, the probative value of admitting the general causation expert against the unfair prejudice to Sheehan of excluding the testimony; and (2) because the trial judge erred by holding that Section 8145 does not revive intentional torts.

I. Facts and Procedural History

James E. Sheehan attended Salesianum School during 1961-1964. While Sheehan was a student at Salesianum, Father Francis Norris, a priest of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, was assigned to a teaching position at Salesianum. Sheehan alleges that one night in April 1962, during the spring of his sophomore year, Norris offered him a ride home after a basketball game and Norris forced him to engage in sexual masturbation in the car. Sheehan never reported the incident to the Oblates or to Salesianum. However, Sheehan testified that decades before he had any motive to lie, he told his family members about the sexual abuse.

Eyewitness testimony, as well as the Oblates' own business records, demonstrated that the Oblates had prior notice that Norris was an alcoholic and had attempted suicide, and that the Oblates' own doctors urged his immediate psychiatric hospitalization. Sheehan's expert witness testified that in the 1960's priest records used code words to refer to sexual abuse of a child. These code words included "health problems," "depression," "nervous breakdown," and "alcoholism." The expert also testified that alcoholism was not considered a scandal at the time because it was so prevalent in the religious communities of priests. Norris' personnel file was filled with the words "health problems," "depression," and "alcoholism." Shortly before his transfer to Salesianum, his file noted that it was preferable to remove him from his then current locality (New York) and out of direct contact with his present community.

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