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SMMUSD Seeks Retrial and Split Payment in $45 Million in Abuse Lawsuit

Twins physically abused by behavioral aid at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School in Malibu, according to lawsuit

By Sam Catanzaro 

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) is seeking a retrial after a jury ruled that it must pay $45 million to the family of special needs twins who were physically abused by a behavioral aid. In addition, SMMUSD officials last week voted to pay the $45 million over the course of 10 years, citing financial hardship 

The lawsuit was filed in 2019 by plaintiffs Charles and Nadine Wong on behalf of their two sons, who were students at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School in Malibu. The school has since closed after merging with the Point Dume Marine Science School site to accommodate a middle school at the Cabrillo site.

According to the lawsuit, during the 2017-2018 school year Galit Gottlieb, a behavioral aid assigned to the twins, used corporal punishment on the two boys. Allegations include making the twins – both of whom had “extremely limited” communication capabilities – put hand sanitizer on cuts and grabbing them in a manner intended to inflict pain.

The abuse was first reported by a bus driver for the district. 

The lawsuit contends that the twins suffered damages, including bruising, emotional distress and pain, suffering and inconvenience, in addition to special damages such as counseling expenses, behavioral interventions and increased living expenses. 

“District administrators failed the twins by allowing them to be abused for months despite clear warnings they were being harmed,” said the plaintiff’s attorney David W. German of Vanaman German LLP in a statement. “Even now, they refuse to acknowledge the extent of the harm their employee caused. Fortunately, the jury saw through their continued attempt to cover-up what occurred.”

In October, a jury ruled that the SMMUSD must pay $45 million to the family. 

District officials, however, are seeking a retrial and also recently voted to pay out the $45 million over 10 years. According to a resolution passed last week by the SMMUSD Board of Education, paying the $45 million in a lump sum would cause the district “undue financial hardships.” 

“The District does not have sufficient funds available to pay the amounts rendered in the Verdicts by lump sum,” reads the resolution, which states that paying a lump sum would hinder its ability to provide services to students.  

According to the SMMUSD, paying the $45 million over 10 years is in line with California Government Code section 970.6. 

In addition, speaking at last week’s meeting, SMMUSD Superintendant Ben Drati stated the district is seeking a retrial, saying “the evidence simply doesn’t support the verdict or the damages that were awarded.” 

“Nothing is – or ever could be – more important to us than the safety and security of all students. Our ongoing dedication to our special needs students is paramount to the success of our district as a whole, and we are committed to making sure that nothing like what has been claimed here could ever happen in the future,” Drati told the Mirror in a statement in October. “We must always examine our shortcomings, but we are also determined to protect the well-being of thousands of our future students and ensure that an unduly punitive award cannot impact the quality of education for an entire generation.” 

SMMUSD is expected to share further updates on the case in January.

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