Written by Kevin Jenkins
August 15, 2012 · Last Update: 10:57 AM
ST. GEORGE — A lawsuit claiming several youth correctional schools throughout the world were involved in perpetrating physical and sexual abuse against children from across the country will be heard in St. George’s 5th District Court, in large part because most of the companies accused of the abuse — and the people operating them — call Washington County their home.
Judge James Shumate ruled Tuesday the lawsuit will continue to be heard in St. George despite motions filed by the Texas attorney representing more than 350 alleged victims and family members that sought to have the case transferred back to Salt Lake City, even though a judge there ruled the case should be heard in Southern Utah.
The complaint claims nearly 60 defendant companies and their owners were involved in the systematic abuse of juveniles who were placed in boarding schools or residential treatment centers by their parents or guardians.
Although the schools and treatment centers accused in the lawsuit bear a variety of names and have been located in multiple countries, the plaintiffs allege they are all connected as enterprises of an institution named the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, which is based in St. George and owned by Toquerville resident Robert Lichfield and co-owners Brent Facer and Ken Kay, who list St. George business addresses.
“Thirty-eight of the 57 defendants reside in Washington County. That would bear out that the case should be in Washington County,” Salt Lake City attorney Stewart Harman, representing the Washington County defendants, argued. “That’s where the documents of this alleged conspiracy would be located.”
Examples of abuse by staff members of the different facilities, enumerated in the complaint, include allegations of locking the youths in small cages in painful positions, denying them adequate food, denying them proper medical care, kicking and beating them, forcing them to eat their own vomit, forcing them into sexual relations and depriving them of sleep or access to the toilet.
The complaint acknowledges that not all youths in the program were alleged to have suffered all the forms of abuse listed, but it claims all of the student plaintiffs suffered multiple forms of abuse during their time in the boarding programs.
Dallas attorney Windle Turley argued Tuesday for the plaintiffs that the case’s expansive scope should be heard in Salt Lake City’s court because the only Utah plaintiffs named in the lawsuit are five people from the Wasatch Front area and because it would be easier for non-Utah plaintiffs to travel to the Salt Lake area than to St. George.
The non-Utah plaintiffs list addresses in 36 other states, plus one each in Washington, D.C., and in England, and Turley argued a Washington County trial would be prejudicial in favor of the defense.
The lawsuit is filed as a joint-action case, meaning each plaintiff retains his or her own standing, instead of as a class-action lawsuit in which the defendants would all be considered to be uniform in their circumstance and case outcome, Turley said.
The lawsuit was filed in Utah’s federal court in 2006 under racketeering allegations, but those claims were dismissed last year, and the abuse complaint moved to the state’s 3rd District court. Salt Lake City Judge John Paul Kennedy sent the case to Washington County in June in response to a motion by the defense.
Shumate sought to assure Turley that St. George has sufficient staff and technological resources to handle the complex case, and allowed that the different parties may participate in the organizational court hearings via telephone without traveling to Utah.
“In order to not use your valuable time nor your clients’ resources … I’m avoiding airline tickets and travel expenses for the parties,” Shumate said. “The court’s sensitive to the expenses of the parties and the firms (involved).”
Shumate said there likely is still a lengthy court process ahead and scheduled an Oct. 2 status conference to ensure the case is progressing.
“Let’s get some wheels on this thing and get it moving,” Shumate said.