In the small town of Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, with a total population of less than 500 and where abandoned buildings line the main road into town, the historic Rio Arriba County Courthouse still stands as part of the First Judicial District Court. On June 26, 2023, a Rio Arriba County jury was selected in a tragic case involving the sexual abuse of a minor by her foster parent that began when she was only 8 years old. The minor child, known only as G.S., was represented by a Guardian ad Litem, the named plaintiff in the case against the foster parents and the companies involved in the placement of the child in their home. [i]
The complaint was filed on March 20, 2019, and after several years of discovery, depositions, and motions, jurors heard the case at the end of June and the beginning of July. The jury concluded their deliberations on July 10, 2023.[ii] In the three-page special damage form, jurors were asked first to determine the amount of compensatory damages to G.S. in the first question, which the jury set at $80 million.
The next questions were broken down by each defendant. First, the jury assessed whether punitive damages were justified. Once the jury assessed that, they were asked the amount they would award for punitive damages against the various defendants, including a number of companies and one individual, Clarence Garcia. Mr. Garcia was the licensed foster parent accused of sexually abusing G.S.; he also pled guilty in the criminal case in January 2023 to seven counts of criminal sexual contact with a minor.[iii] The jury determined that punitive damages were justified against each of the listed defendants, in amounts of $250M against Acadia Healthcare Inc., $75M against Youth and Family Centered Services, Inc., $75M against Familyworks, Inc., and $5M against Clarence Garcia.
Allegations of Corporate Profit Over Safety
Plaintiff’s complaint consisted of 70 pages and numerous claims against Clarence and Debbie Garcia, the foster parents, and the companies referenced above which were involved in the placement of G.S. in their home. The complaint focused on allegations that the companies put corporate profits over safety – in particular, the safety of vulnerable children in foster care. The allegations included a background section on each of the companies, as well as the CEO of Acadia, who plaintiff alleged “was responsible for shaping this corporate culture of putting profits first.”[iv] The complaint included similar allegations against each of the named companies. Plaintiff alleged that each of the companies was an alter ego of Acadia Healthcare and that Familyworks, the company who placed G.S. in the foster home, was an instrumentality of Acadia.[v] The claims included civil conspiracy and violations of the New Mexico Racketeering Act, specifically alleging that, “Jacobs [Acadia CEO] and Acadia have committed fraud by making promises to ensure the safety of foster children of Familyworks while intentionally understaffing facilities and choosing not to provide adequate levels of staff to properly vet potential foster families, thereby endangering the safety of foster children such as G.S.”[vi] Based on the allegations’ focus of putting corporate profit over safety, it is likely these themes, which are prime examples of the Reptile Theory at play, were woven into every aspect of the case and throughout the jury trial.
$485M Nuclear Verdict® – Inevitable or Avoidable?
The company defendants were represented by skilled and experienced trial attorneys who attempted to defend against each of the claims surrounding a tragic case of sexual abuse committed by the foster parent, Clarence Garcia. While the facts as alleged by plaintiff and presented to the jury, showed shared responsibility for the placement of G.S. into the home of Mr. Garcia, was the verdict by the jury inevitable? Is the $485M award, nearly half a billion dollars, reasonable and justified against the companies based on their responsibility?
It is unclear whether the corporate defendants employed any of the proven Nuclear Verdicts defense methods (accept responsibility, personalize the corporate defendant, give a number, and argue pain and suffering), but it is entirely possible this Nuclear Verdict® might have been avoided if all four had been used. If the corporate defendants had accepted responsibility for G.S.’s placement in Mr. Garcia’s home, would it have made a difference in the outcome? Accepting responsibility for something in every case is crucial to defuse juror anger by validating it.[vii] Would a proactive discussion by the company defendants of a reasonable award to compensate G.S. throughout the rest of her life in a meaningful way make a difference? Similarly, giving a number should be an important piece of every defendant’s strategy in order to counteract the number given by plaintiff’s counsel and provide an alternate story for the jury to consider. Would finding a way to tell the jury about the individuals in these companies who dedicated their careers to helping children and placing children in safe and loving foster homes make a difference? Personalizing a defendant allows a jury to view them as the humans behind the company rather than the company itself, undermining plaintiff’s counsel’s abilities to capitalize on fear and distrust of corporations.
Ultimately, the question of the reasonableness of the $485M award may be answered by a New Mexico appellate court if the company defendants determine an appeal to the verdict is appropriate and justified. For now, the jury has spoken, and spoken loudly on behalf of G.S.
[i] See Complaint for Damages, Thurston et al. v. Garcia et al., D-117-CV-201900136 (1st Jud. Dist. Ct. Mar. 20 2019).
[ii] See Special Verdict, Thurston et al. v. Garcia et al., D-117-CV-201900136 (1st Jud. Dist. Ct. Jul. 10 2023).
[iii] “New Mexico Jury Awards $485 Million in Damages in Case of Girl Sexually Assaulted in Foster Care”. U.S. News & World Report, July 11, 2023. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/new-mexico/articles/2023-07-11/new-mexico-jury-awards-485-million-in-damages-in-case-of-girl-sexually-assaulted-in-foster-care.
[iv] See Complaint for Damages ¶ 29, Thurston et al. v. Garcia et al., D-117-CV-201900136 (1st Jud. Dist. Ct. Mar. 20 2019).
[v] See id. at ¶ 110.
[vi] See id. at ¶ 24.
[vii] Tyson, Robert, Nuclear Verdicts: Defending Justice for All (2020).