The decision of a federal bankruptcy judge to allow jury trials for victims of sexual abuse by San Diego priests has put more pressure on the settlement talks between the Diocese of San Diego and lawyers representing the claimants.
Judge Louise DeCarl Adler ruled on Friday that 42 of the 127 sex-abuse lawsuits filed against the diocese should be released for jury trials, reported the Union-Tribune.
Adler's ruling comes four years after the first lawsuits were filed. They were halted once the diocese sought bankruptcy protection in February.
In a hearing Thursday, the diocese argued that jury trials would be time-consuming and result in fragmented outcomes. Its attorneys asked instead for the federal court to place a dollar value on the claims and allow the victims to reject or accept that offer. Those who reject it could pursue trials in federal court, the lawyers proposed.
But in her 14-page decision, Adler dismissed the diocese's arguments. Victims have a constitutional right to jury trials, she wrote. And, barring a settlement, prompt resolution of the bankruptcy case appears unlikely, she continued.
The judge said the diocese's $95-million settlement offer is well below the state average for abuse claims. Furthermore, she stated, the diocese’s attorneys were looking for courts that would look more favorably on their case.
Susan Boswell, the diocese's lead bankruptcy attorney, denied yesterday that the diocese was forum shopping or trying to avoid jury trials.
“We believed when we filed (for bankruptcy) and still believe that this process affords the best way for all of the victims to receive compensation in a more expeditious way,” she told the Union-Tribune.
Adler must still formally lift the stays placed on the 42 cases. She is expected to decide whether to do this on Sept. 6. She is also is expected to decide whether to dismiss the bankruptcy case altogether.
Should Judge Adler lift the stays Sept. 6, a hearing will follow before Superior Court Judge John Einhorn to determine the status of four cases that had been set to begin trial shortly after the bankruptcy petition was filed.
According to the Union-Tribune, both sides have said significant progress has been made in settlement talks in the past two weeks.