Judge orders stay in 2015 Kiwanis Vocational Home lawsuit

A Thurston County judge issued a stay Friday in a 2015 lawsuit alleging negligence by state agencies and abuse by staff and other residents at the state-licensed Kiwanis Vocational Home, open from 1979 to 1994 in Centralia.

The ruling put the case on hold for at least a year.

Superior Court Judge James Dixon agreed to issue the stay requested by attorney Allison Croft, representing the Department of Social and Health Services, who argued that the results of a pending Supreme Court case could affect the state’s liability in the lawsuit.

“The case is going to be argued in February and will certainly be decided no later than the end of the year,” Croft said in court last week.

She argued that trying the case before the higher court’s decision could result in appeals.

“We believe we would be greatly prejudiced having to try this case likely not once, but twice,” Croft said.

The suit is the first of several now filed in Thurston County Superior Court by former residents of Centralia’s Kiwanis Vocational Home against defendants that include Kiwanis International and local clubs, the state of Washington, and agencies including the state DSHS.

The 2015 suit names three plaintiffs using initials — R.N., J.W. and S.C. — who all claim that Kiwanis and the state were negligent in allowing the home to stay open despite allegations of sexual abuse by staff and other residents at the Kiwanis Vocational Home.

Additional suits were filed by former KVH residents in 2016 and 2017.

Attorney Darrell Cochran, representing the plaintiffs on Friday, argued that state agencies have admitted their own liability in similar lawsuits regarding abuse at other state-licensed group homes, such as the OK Boys Ranch in Olympia.

“The facts are so egregious in terms of their negligence,” Cochran said. “When the state comes to the court and says, ‘There are liability issues out there and we would like you to stay everything' … it runs contrary to 25 years, 26 years of law.”

Dixon issued the stay regarding state defendants, but said the case could proceed against Kiwanis defendants and that attorneys could continue to collect evidence.

Meanwhile, attorneys for Kiwanis defendants have asked Dixon to rule on a motion for summary judgment. A hearing in that motion is scheduled for Dec. 15. The Kiwanis defendants contend they should not be held accountable for the actions of third parties — the staff who the plaintiffs say abused them.

The 2015 lawsuit alleges general negligence by the defendants, saying that the state and Kiwanis allowed the home to remain open despite evidence of abuse. The three plaintiffs in the suit also allege they were sexually abused by two former staff members who are not named as defendants.

“Washington courts have repeatedly rejected efforts to hold a defendant liable as an insurer against intentional acts of third parties,” the motion reads. “The Washington Supreme Court rejects strict or vicarious liability for the sexual crimes of another. … Instead, and as a general rule, no duty exists ‘to prevent a third party from intentionally harming another, unless a special relationship exists between a defendant and either the third party or the foreseeable victim of the third party’s conduct.’”

The Kiwanis organizations and the state argue that they had no such special custodial relationship with the children at the Kiwanis Vocational Home. The motion argues that Kiwanis had no role in the home and simply allowed Lewis County Youth Enterprises, which did business as Kiwanis Vocational Home, to use its name and logo.

Cochran argues that the state and Kiwanis do have a special custodial relationship with the plaintiffs because of DSHS’s actions to take the boys from their homes and make them wards of the state before placing them in the custody of KVH.

He told The Chronicle the state and Kiwanis made the same arguments in the OK Boys Ranch cases, and that courts rejected the argument then.

The OK Boys Ranch was another group home for boys who were wards of the state that was associated with Kiwanis and operated at the same time as the Centralia facility. Millions in lawsuit settlements have been paid out regarding the Olympia home.

The Kiwanis motion states that the clubs did not know of the danger posed by staff accused of abuse.

However, documents obtained by The Chronicle show numerous reports of sexual and physical abuse reported to Kiwanis Vocational Home staff and the state for more than a decade before the home was closed.