A jury in a San Jose, Calif. civil court awarded a teacher $362,653 in damages Friday after finding that his students and their families spread false rumors of sexual abuse.
John Fischler, who taught physical education at a Catholic school, had been accused of touching the 10- and 11-year-old children in inappropriate places and spying on them in the bathroom. The students called him a “creeper” and a “perv,” destroying his reputation.
“I’m grateful the jury was able to see through the smoke screen and the truth came out,” Fischler said after the jury’s announcement. “There’s always going to be a scar. But the jury saw through the deception.”
One of the girls involved was found liable for punitive damages. As the “ringleader” of the rumor mill, the jury believes that she acted with malice. The jury will determine how much money her family will pay during the second stage of the trial, which is scheduled to start on Monday.
Most defamation lawsuits do not end in victory for the victim, according to Aaron P. Morris, president of the California Defamation Lawyers Association.
“One goal in a defamation action can be to recover damages,'” Morris said. “But the priceless value of a defamation action is to gain back your reputation.”
According to San Jose Mercury News, the families and their attorneys in this case were surprised at the verdict because any finding for Fischler might have a “chilling effect” on future accusations of sexual abuse, even if they are true.
Indeed, Lee J. Danforth said, “If this trial prevents one little girl or one mother or father from reporting suspected abuse, then this is profoundly sad for our society.”
Despite this risk, the jury found that Fischler had been the victim of a bullying conspiracy that could bring serious consequences throughout the remainder of his life.