A plaintiff, who claims a coach verbally abused her, will likely appeal a New Jersey state judge’s decision last month to overturn a $1.5 million jury award.
Jennifer Besler, a former student-athlete at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School was awarded $1.47 on March 24 after she convinced a Mercer County jury that her former high school basketball coach, Daniel Hussong, verbally abused her. Joining Hussong as defendants was the West-Windsor/Plainsboro School District as well as former principal Michael Carr, and former Superintendent Raymond Bandlow, because they “negligently supervised” Hussong.
The jury also awarded the plaintiff’s father, Philip Besler, $100,000, after it determined that the School Board violated his First Amendment rights when the board president refused to allow him to speak about Hussong’s abusive behavior at a school board meeting.
The incidents occurred between 1992 and 1996 when Jennifer Besler attended West-Windsor/Plainsboro High and played for the basketball team. Hussong told Besler that she needed to lose 10 pounds in a two week period before the season began. Plaintiff’s counsel claimed that Besler developed an eating disorder and amenorrhea, a loss of her period, because of this directive, as well as the coach’s “persistent pattern of abusive behavior which included continuous use of profanity, violent behavior, intimidation tactics and retaliation against (the plaintiff).”
The plaintiff described the coach as “completely out of control when coaching the girls. He consistently resorted to screaming at the players, made them cry when they were playing, continuously berated them as ‘losers,’ ‘chickens,’ and ‘faggots,’ used profanity and other demeaning comments toward them, kicked the bleachers, slammed lockers, broke clipboards, slammed a door on a girl’s hand, pulled his hair out of his head, yanked the girls’ arms when it was their turn to play, yelled at the players when their parents were, in his view, ‘trash talking’ about him in the stands, accused and mocked the players for having their periods when they weren’t playing to his satisfaction and said if they were boys they wouldn’t be crying or playing so badly.”
The plaintiff’s father issued a statement that claimed “the school district and its administrators, like Superintendent Bandlow and Principal Carr, were more interested in a winning record (then curbing the coach’s behavior). No one would listen to me when I complained about him, and then when I went to a school board meeting, they humiliated me in front of my community when I attempted to speak up for my daughter and I was gaveled and silenced by the board president.”
Judge Overturn Jury’s Award
While the jury may have been thoroughly convinced of the defendants’ culpability, Superior Court Judge Paulette Sapp-Peterson concluded on appeal that it erred in assessing the case under the Tort Claims Act.
The judge questioned whether there was medical evidence that Besler did suffer from an eating disorder. She also had reservations about whether there was intentional infliction of emotional distress
The Tort Claims Act requires a plaintiff to demonstrate a permanent loss of bodily function. However, “the court does not suggest that plaintiff did not experience embarrassment, humiliation, intimidation, frustration, betrayal and other painful emotional distress at the hands of defendants during the 1995-1996 basketball season and thereafter.”
At the same time, the judge did uphold the $100,000 civil rights award to Philip Besler, concluding that the school board violated his rights to free speech.
In his appeal, Besler’s attorney Daniel Fleming of Princeton’s Wong Fleming in Princeton, N.J., claimed that reasonable attorney fees are recoverable under the Tort Claims Act except in cases involving pain and suffering. With the pain and suffering damages eliminated and the jury’s finding of liability still in place, fees should be recoverable, he argued.
Fleming has also hinted at an appeal of the judge’s evidentiary findings that there was insufficient evidence of an eating disorder or permanent injury.
Michael Herbert, counsel to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, gave his thoughts of Sapp-Peterson’s reversal to the New Jersey Law Journal:
“The day of overaggressive parents is in full flower, and the courts shouldn’t be used to carry out their personal agendas,” said Herbert of Herbert, Van Ness, Cayci & Goodell of Princeton, N.J.
“Whatever coach Hussong did, and we certainly don’t condone it, it didn’t belong in the courts, it belonged before the school or before the NJSIAA, and for that reason we support the decision of the judge.
“What we were fearful about in this case was that any parent, some well-heeled parent, can blame a coach for everything from having headaches to not being successful in a career and win damages.”