In J.P. v. Carlsbad Unified School District, published December 12, 2014, the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division 1, affirmed a jury verdict in favor of two minors against a defendant school district and its employees for negligent supervision of a teacher who improperly touched two minor students. Because the improper acts occurred before 2009, Government Code section 905(m), which exempts claims for childhood sexual molestation from the Government Claims Act, did not apply. When the first minor was improperly touched, she immediately told her parents, who reported the act to the school district. District employees contacted the police, and repeatedly told the parents and the student not to talk to anyone about the allegations because it might endanger the criminal prosecution's success. Over a year after the incident, the second student's parents saw an article about the preliminary hearing in the teacher's prosecution. They questioned their child, who was one of the teacher's students, and learned she too had been improperly touched. They immediately reported this to the district. The district also told the second family not to speak to anyone about the incident, to avoid contaminating the criminal case. The prosecutor made the same request. One of the families spoke to a counselor about the case, and also made an anonymous comment on an online article about the incident. One of the parents obtained the name of a civil lawyer, but did not talk to the lawyer. The teacher eventually pleaded guilty. Six weeks after the sentencing hearing, the minors presented claims for damages to the district. The district contended that the claims were untimely. The matter went to trial. The jury found that the district was equitably estopped from asserting the failure to timely present the minors' claims.
The appellate court affirmed. Looking at the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, the court concluded that substantial evidence supported the jury's finding on equitable estoppel. The district's repeated instructions to stay silent, coupled with the threat that prosecution of the attacker would be endangered if they did not comply, intimidated the parents into not speaking to anyone about the possibility of civil claims against the district. The district could therefore not benefit from its conduct. While the district's administrators may not have intended to prevent the children and parents from presenting government claims, the intent was not necessary for estoppel to apply. Factually misleading the claimant is not a necessary element of estoppel where the estoppel results from intimidation. Although the district did not threaten the claimants, the statements effectively amounted to a threat that the teacher would be convicted if they talked to anyone. The jury could find it was reasonable for the parents to interpret the instructions as prohibiting discussions with civil attorneys about claims. Even though the parents could have presented claims without a lawyer, preventing a claimant from obtaining legal advice may estop a public entity. The court also approved the instructions and special verdict forms the court gave regarding estoppel.