South Carolina Jury Awards Former Assistant Principal Mary Rita Watson $1M
Dorchester County School District 2 found liable in abuse of process lawsuit
(South Carolina) – A Dorchester County jury awarded teacher and former Assistant Principal of Knightsville Elementary School, Mary Rita Watson a $1,000,000 verdict in a civil lawsuit filed on her behalf involving an incident that occurred at the school in 2009. Attorney Gregg Meyers of Jeff Anderson & Associates, a Minnesota-based law firm specializing in cases of child sexual abuse with an office in Charleston, SC, represented Watson in a civil lawsuit against the school district alleging abuse of process.
In 2009 Watson received a report from a teacher’s aide that another aide had pulled the hair and grabbed the crotch of a special needs child. Watson immediately reported the incident to the school’s principal, Anita Ruff-Putillion. The principal conducted an internal investigation, spoke with the accused aide and determined no further action needed to be taken.
Approximately two weeks later, the aide who reported the incident, told a more expansive version of events to her mental health provider. The aide alleged additional misconduct, for a longer period of time with more child victims. The therapist made a report to the Department of Social Services and to the school district. Watson was not told of these additional details when the aide originally reported the incident to her.
On October 2, 2009, a Circuit Court Judge notified the school district a friend, a fellow Family Court Judge, had received a report that her child had been abused and no one at the school made a report. The deputy superintendent promised the judges a thorough investigation and as a result, accused Ruff-Putillion and Watson with the crime of failing to report child abuse. School officials presumed Watson was told all of the details and after one week, demoted her to a classroom teacher.
Watson was told by school officials she was, “messing with the wrong parents” and the parents “wouldn’t be happy until they were all removed.” The school district issued a press release telling the public they had removed the administrators and a criminal investigation would take place by the Sheriff’s Department and Department of Social Services. The administrators were arrested and criminally charged with failing to report child abuse. Watson hired a criminal defense attorney, spending $15,000, only to have the charges dropped one year later.
The civil lawsuit alleged that after receiving the report from the judges, the school district, with improper motive collaborated with law enforcement to further that improper motive. Meyers requested the jury return a verdict in Watson’s favor asking them to make it clear that the way Watson was treated was not okay. The jury agreed and after an hour-long deliberation returned a $1m verdict in Watson’s favor. “We appreciate the jury was very clear on telling the district they cannot treat their employees that way,” said Meyers.
In South Carolina, state law caps damages at $300,000 but Meyers asked the jury for $1m to make it clear to the school district that their actions were unacceptable. Watson is the primary provider for her family of five children and after being charged with the crime of failing to report child abuse, she was unable to find a job and was 10 years from retirement.
“I am relieved and appreciate that someone finally listened to my story,” said Mary Rita Watson.