Disputed verdict draws both sides back to court in New Hampshire youth detention center abuse case

Brentwood, N.H. (AP) — Both sides in a landmark trial over abuse at New Hampshire’s youth detention center returned to the courtroom Monday, seven weeks after jurors delivered what remains an unsettled verdict.

A jury awarded $38 million to David Meehan in May but found the state liable for only one “incident” of abuse at the Youth Development Center in Manchester. Jurors weren’t told that state law caps claims against the state at $475,000 per “incident,” and some later said they wrote “one” on the verdict form to reflect 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 set aside just the portion of the verdict where jurors wrote one incident, allowing the $38 million to stand, or to order a new trial focused only on determining the number of incidents. The state, meanwhile, has asked him to impose the cap. Schulman has yet to rule on those motions, and at a hearing Monday, attorneys said more paperwork is coming.

In a May 24 order, Schulman said imposing the cap would be an “unconscionable miscarriage of justice.” He didn’t go that far Monday, but said there was a disconnect between the award and the finding of one incident.

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

Although they didn’t argue as such at trial, lawyers for the state said jurors appeared to have defined incident as “a single harmful condition” to which the plaintiff was exposed, and as such, the verdict should stand. David Vicinanzo, one of Meehan’s attorneys, characterized that position as “The state is essentially saying, yeah, 100 rapes, 200 rapes, it all equals one rape."

“What reasonable person thinks that?” he said.

Meehan, 42, went to police in 2017 to report the abuse and sued the state three years later. Since then, 11 former state workers 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.

Over the four-week trial, Meehan’s attorneys argued that the state encouraged a culture of abuse marked by pervasive brutality, corruption and a code of silence. The state, which portrayed Meehan as a violent child, troublemaking teenager and delusional adult, argued that he waited too long to sue and that it shouldn’t be held liable for the actions of “rogue” employees.

Schulman already rejected what he called the two worst options: reconvening the jury or questioning them about their decision. Other options would be ordering a new trial or adjusting the number of incidents on the verdict form. That latter would be something akin to a process by which a judge can add damages to an original amount awarded by the jury if a defendant waives a new trial. While Monday’s discussion included possible outcomes such as appeals to the state Supreme Court, Schulman said he was trying not to focus on such speculation.

“My job is to rule on the motions in front of me and not necessarily to figure out everybody’s subsequent moves on the chess board,” he said.