Controversial ruling sends both parties back to court in abuse case at a New Hampshire youth prison

Brentwood, NH – Both sides in a landmark trial over abuse at a New Hampshire juvenile detention center returned to the courtroom Monday, seven weeks after jurors returned a still-unresolved verdict.

A jury awarded David Meehan $38 million in May but found the state liable for only a single “incident” of abuse at the Youth Development Center in Manchester. Jurors were not told that the law caps damages against the state at $475,000 per “incident.” Some later said they had written “one” on the verdict form to indicate a single case of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from more than 100 episodes of physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

Meehan's lawyers have asked Judge Andrew Schulman to throw out only the part of the verdict where the jury mentioned one incident, so the $38 million would stand, or order a new trial to determine only the number of incidents. The state, meanwhile, has asked him to impose the cap. Schulman has not yet ruled on those requests, and at a hearing Monday, lawyers said more filings will follow.

In a ruling on May 24, Schulman said imposing a cap would be an “unacceptable miscarriage of justice.” He stopped short of going that far on Monday, but said there was a discrepancy between the decision and the finding of an incident.

“We don't know exactly what the jury was thinking,” he said. “But $38 million doesn't fit with a single incident.”

Although they did not argue this in court, the state's lawyers said the jury appeared to have defined the incident as “a single noxious condition” to which the plaintiff was exposed, and as such the verdict should stand. David Vicinanzo, one of Meehan's lawyers, characterized that position as follows: “The state is essentially saying, yes, 100 rapes, 200 rapes, that all adds up to one rape.”

“What sane person thinks such a thing?” he said.

Meehan, 42, went to police to report the abuse in 2017 and sued the state three years later. Since then, 11 former state employees have been arrested, although charges against one of them were dropped after the man, now in his early 80s, was found incompetent to stand trial.

During the four-week trial, Meehan's lawyers argued that the state fostered a culture of abuse marked by pervasive brutality, corruption and a code of silence. The state, which portrayed Meehan as a violent child, rebellious teenager and delusional adult, argued that it waited too long to sue and that it should not be held liable for the actions of “rogue” employees.

Schulman has already rejected the two worst options: reconvening the jury or questioning the jury about its decision. Other options would be ordering a retrial or adjusting the number of incidents on the verdict form. The latter would be something like a procedure where a judge can add damages to an amount originally awarded by the jury if a defendant waives a retrial. While Monday's discussion included possible outcomes such as appeals to the state Supreme Court, Schulman said he tries not to focus on such speculation.

“My job is to decide on the motions before me and not necessarily to predict everyone's subsequent moves on the chessboard,” he said.

Anna Harden

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