Lawyers for YDC victims dispute proposed state damage awards

David Vicinanzo, one of the lead lawyers for victims of alleged abuse at Youth Development Center, said state proposed damage awards were "insultingly low."

CONCORD — The lead lawyers for victims of alleged sexual and physical abuse at the Youth Development Center in Manchester charged that the state’s proposed guidelines for damage awards are “insultingly low.”

David Vicinanzo and Rus Rilee wrote a letter to Attorney General John Formella, contending that the state’s proposed payments from a $100 million fund are far lower than damages judges and juries have awarded in courts across the country.

Last week, the AG’s office presented to the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee worksheets outlining proposed “base” awards ranging from $25,000 to $200,000 for five categories of sexual assault.

The lawyers condemned a proposed $200,000 base award for rape and $50,000 for physical abuse that results in “permanent or life-threatening bodily injury.”

“By any measure, these amounts are insultingly low and seemingly driven by the state’s desire to resolve as many claims as possible under the caps, not by any sense of fairness or decency,” the lawyers wrote.

The AG’s office responded that officials there were “disappointed” by the letter and that the office is committed to a collaborative process for how state prosecutors would judge requests for damages.

Under the legislation (HB 1677), any victim not happy with the AG’s award can appeal it to an independent administrator.

“The letter sent by Attorneys Rilee and Vicinanzo appears to be designed to score points in the press and not designed to provide substantive feedback and further the efforts to help victims,” said the AG statement issued by Michael Garrity, director of communications and legislative affairs.

State prosecutors have stressed that the base awards were meant as a starting point for damages and could be raised based on the individual circumstances that victims faced.

The settlements reached in nearly 5,000 cases nationwide were the basis for the state’s proposed awards, officials said.

‘Comparable cases’

Lawyers for the victims said their own survey found that the average jury or settlement awards in cases like New Hampshire’s is “close to $1.5 million.”

They accused state prosecutors of excluding “comparable cases” that would have come up with higher awards.

The state’s proposal “is a transparent effort to drive down settlement values that is not fooling anyone,” the lawyers said.

AG's office defends proposed damage awards for YDC victims

New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella's office defended as fair and appropriate its proposed, base damage awards for those who suffered sexual or physical abuse while at the Youth Development Center in Manchester.

The sides disagreed over whether these victims retain the right to sue in court if they agreed to enter into negotiations with the state over damages.

“This means the victim is required by the state that abused them to waive all their rights before they have any guarantee that they will be given a fair award, or any award at all,” the lawyers for victims maintained.

The AG’s office countered that the new state law permits a victim unhappy with the state’s settlement offer to go back into court to resume their lawsuit rather than appeal it to the administrator.

“Our ultimate goal is a process that helps victims. We would stress that YDC victims who file a lawsuit can also file a claim in this process,” the AG’s office concluded.

The lawyers represent close to 600 people who were housed at the YDC or its successor Sununu Youth Services Center.

The YDC has been the target of a criminal investigation since 2019. The victims have brought allegations involving 150 staffers from 1960 to 2018.

Ten former workers at the YDC and one from a pre-trial facility in Concord were charged either with sexual assault or acting as accomplices in attacks on more than a dozen teenagers from 1994 to 2007.

While the cases go back as far as 1963, Vicinanzo said most of them took place during the 1990s.

The center is big enough to house 144 juveniles, but now has only about a dozen teens there.

The Legislature has ordered the state to replace the center with a smaller complex by March 2023.

State health and human services officials have called that timeline too aggressive, but an attempt to push the deadline back a few years failed in the Legislature last month.